Reading by Ear: Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
read by Kristoffer Tabori

Middlesex was my introduction to Jeffrey Eugenides in high school—I’d seen a friend of mine toting it around, so I swapped for it on SwapTree and got to reading. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know I absolutely love Eugenides, who stole my literary heart with his knack for detail long before Chabon did, and Middlesex is the book that did it. I learned a lot reading it, and the paperback copy I got on SwapTree remains on my bookshelf to this day. While shelving at the library, I stumbled across the audiobook, which was then promptly checked out by someone who wasn’t me. I patiently waited for it to come back in (instead of putting it on hold like a normal person) and immediately snatched it up.

Middlesex is the story of Cal Stephanides or perhaps, more aptly, the story of the mutated gene that made Cal who he is today—an intersexed Greek-American man living in Berlin, writing down his story. From the story of his Greek grandparents immigrating from Turkey in the 1920s to the love story of his own parents to his own transformation from the girl Calliope into the man he is today, Cal lovingly tells the saga of his own family, a saga that touches upon the immigrant experience in America, the American Dream, and the supposed and actual differences between the genders—after all, Cal has a unique vantage point.

This kind of novel—a sweeping family saga from the viewpoint of one of its own members—can only work if the protagonist is interesting, and Eugenides succeeds wildly here. Cal is fascinating, charming, witty, and wholly engaging. While the first half of the novel focuses on family history rather than Cal himself, he’s present because of his narration, the way he speaks, thinks, and links things together. In short, Cal is a living and breathing human being; sure, his circumstances are extraordinary, but he spends as much time detailing the more universal immigrant experience in America as he does the more singular hermaphroditic experience in 1970s San Diego, and he makes both relatable and human. Eugenides has said that he based Cal on himself, the most visible aspects being their Greek heritage and upbringing in Detroit, which might account for this. But you never feel the hand of the author here, which is both because Cal is a marvelous creation and because he himself is the author of this story. I almost want to refer to Stephanides instead of Eugenides, to be honest—it’s a stunning accomplishment.

As soon as I started listening to the audiobook, I almost regretted not simply rereading the novel. One downside of audiobooks is that it’s impossible to mark passages you love. But perhaps that was a blessing in disguise, since copying out everything I adored in Middlesex would probably turn out to be an afternoon project. Eugenides has a knack for picking just the right detail to make things weighty and real—which I always love—but he uses this gift as a way to sketch in the entire picture of Cal’s life. With seeming effortlessness, he recreates the air of a claustrophobic and tiny village in Greece, Detroit from the 1920s on, San Diego in the 1970s, and the unmoored life of an American civil servant abroad. And while Cal is the most astonishing creation in the novel, the rest of the cast is just as well-rounded, particularly his grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. We watch Desdemona’s own slow transformation from practical village girl to terrified refugee to conflicted woman in love to mother to grandmother to widow, as well as her translation from Greece to America that never really took, unlike Cal’s great-aunt Sormelina, whose homosexuality got her kicked out of the village.

Honestly, I’m having a hard time writing about Middlesex because it is so good and more than stands up to what I remember. I did very little writing while listening to Middlesex, because I was both so absorbed in the story and so stunned by Eugenides’ command of the craft—what on earth was I playing at? That might sound depressing, but, since it dissipates once you’re done, it’s actually a fascinating experience. In fact, experience is the right way to frame Middlesex; it’s not a novel that you read, but that you experience, with Cal leading you sardonically and affectionately on into the history of his family and himself.

In the audio presentation, Kristoffer Tabori does a fantastic job narrating—it’s less narration and more acting. His Cal is conversational and engaging, with his voices for other characters sounding less like different voices and more like Cal imitating his family; the voices, of course, are all still distinct, but it’s a fantastic choice that adds to Cal’s narration. Voices change based on what language they’re speaking, too—Desdemona sounds American in Greek, but once she speaks English, she receives a thick Greek accent. It’s very well-done, hence the audiobook’s 2003 Audie Award. My only complaint is the music, as ever. (Is this a thing in audiobooks? How can I put a stop to this?) The main theme is a sweeping piece that reminds me of nothing so much as Fievel Goes West, which is at odds with the cozy, gloriously mundane nature of the book. Worse, the music comes in at odd moments, instead of noting major demarcations. While I still highly recommend the audiobook, it was highly jarring.

Bottom line: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex is not a novel you read—it’s a novel you experience, led on by the witty, engaging, and charming Cal Stephanides, an intersexed Greek-American living in Berlin and writing down the family saga that brought his mutated gene through his family and into fruition. Kristoffer Tabori’s narration is less narrating and more acting, adding to the conversational air of Cal—but the musical choices are jarring and poorly placed. Still, a highly recommended audiobook.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Middlesex

  1. I only skimmed your review, since I’m starting this one in a few weeks for Reading Buddies. I’m excited! I own a print copy and also have a copy of the audio from the library. Many people have urged me to go for the audio, but I think I’ll be happy to have the print just in case. I’m looking forward to reading it!

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