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Middlesex (Oprah's Book Club Selection #58)


Middlesex (Oprah's Book Club Selection #58) Cover



Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. Describing his own conception, Cal writes: "The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection." (p. 11) Is Cals condition a result of chance or fate? Which of these forces governs the world as Cal sees it?

2. Middlesex begins just before Cals birth in 1960, then moves backward in time to 1922. Cal is born at the beginning of Book Three, about halfway through the novel. Why did the author choose to structure the story this way? How does this movement backward and forward in time reflect the larger themes of the work?

3. When Tessie and Milton decide to try to influence the sex of their baby, Desdemona disapproves. "God decides what baby is," she says. "Not you." (p.13) What happens when characters in the novel challenge fate?

4. "To be honest, the amusement grounds should be closed at this hour, but, for my own purposes, tonight Electric Park is open all night, and the fog suddenly lifts, all so that my grandfather can look out the window and see a roller coaster streaking down the track. A moment of cheap symbolism only, and then I have to bow to the strict rules of realism, which is to say: they cant see a thing." (pp. 110-11) Occasionally, Cal interrupts his own narrative, calling attention to himself and the artifice inherent in his story. What purpose do these interruptions serve? Is Cal a reliable narrator?

5. "Ive never had the right words to describe my life, and now that Ive entered my story, I need them more than ever," Cal writes (p. 217). How does Cal narrate the events that take place before his birth? Does his perspective as a narrator change when he is recounting events that take place after he is born?

6. "All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, theres an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell." (p.20) What does Cal mean by this? Is his manner of telling his story connected to the question of his gender? How?

7. How are Cals early sexual experiences similar to those of an adolescent? How are they different? Are the differences more significant than the similarities?

8. Why does Cal decide to live as a man rather than as a woman?

9. How does Cals experience reflect on the "nature vs. nurture" debate about gender identity?

10. Who is Johnny Zizmo? How does he influence the course of events in the novel?

11. What is Dr. Luces role in the novel? Would you describe him as a villain?

12. Calliope is the name the classical Greek muse of eloquence and epic poetry. What elements of Greek mythology figure in Cals story? Is this novel meant to be a new myth?

13. How is Cals experience living within two genders similar to the immigrant experience of living within two cultures? How is it different?

14. Middlesex is set against the backdrop of several historical events: the war between Greece and Turkey, the rise of the Nation of Islam, World War II, and the Detroit riots. How does history shape the lives of the characters in the novel?

15. What does America represent for Desdemona? For Milton? For Cal? To what extent do you think these characters different visions of America correspond to their status as first-, second-, and third-generation Greek Americans?

16. What role does race play in the novel? How do the Detroit riots of 1967 affect the Stephanides family and Cal, specifically?

17. Describe Middlesex. Does the house have a symbolic function in the novel?

18. "Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering," Cal writes (p.273). How and when do Desdemonas Old World values conflict with the ethos of America, and, specifically, of Middlesex?

19. The final sentence of the novel reads: "I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next." (p. 529) What is next for Cal? Does the author give us reason to believe that Cals relationship with Julie will be successful?

20. "Watching from the cab, Milton came face-to-face with the essence of tragedy, which is something determined before youre born, something you cant escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try." (p. 426) According to this definition, is Cals story a tragedy?

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Average customer rating based on 27 comments:

finch917, February 21, 2015 (view all comments by finch917)
One of the most exquisitely imagined, beautifully written, profoundly compassionate and compelling novels I've encountered. A premise seemingly a bit on the far-fetched side which becomes the story of everyone who has ever felt like they didn't fit into the right boxes--and a reminder of the pitfalls of trying to, of the opportunities found in accepting people for who they are, and of the fact that we are all on a journey of self-discovery in one way or another.
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sentina, November 23, 2012 (view all comments by sentina)
What an appropriate title for a book that deals with "the third sex" -- hermaphrodites who are the one percent of people born with physical and hormonal characteristics of both male and female genders. "Middlesex" is a blend of racial, social, sexual, and family dynamics, as well as history, reproductive science, genetics, economics, politics, environment, and personal experience that is surprisingly non-egocentric and touching.

Jeffrey Eugenides writes as though the main character, Calliope, is a fully aware and functioning person waiting to be born over several generations and observing everything that is going on, even as some cells in her/his mother. This fantasy actually lends credibility to the sequence of events that the author describes.

There are stunning revelations about the intrusive bullying of medical "specialists" who want to control hermaphrodites' lives, through surgery, rather than allowing these people to make their own choices when they grow up.

I found it difficult to plow through the extensive scientific and historical information early in the book, much of which is written as though it is common knowledge, but the parts that deal with Calliope's family, community, and sexuality are engrossing. I have a much broader view of human sexuality and the way we look at ourselves, each other, and the world after reading this story.
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(2 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)
ladymacbech, December 22, 2011 (view all comments by ladymacbech)
If you've read all the overviews and reviews and you still haven't picked up and read this book - too bad - you don't know what you're missing. Go ahead -open it, I dare you to put it down. I was really astonished as to the approach of the subject and the added angst of a young person growing up and finding that an amazing new conflict of judgement and choice has added a different twist to life between childhood and becoming a young adult. The main character, and eventually a loving family find a new normalcy. It would be really wonderful if more people could pass by snap judgements as to differences and approach each other with greater depth and acceptance.
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(3 of 5 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Eugenides, Jeffrey
Picador USA
New York
General Fiction
Gender identity
Domestic fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Oprah's Book Club
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.03 x 5.75 x 1.035 in

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Middlesex (Oprah's Book Club Selection #58) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 544 pages Picador USA - English 9780312427733 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Middlesex vibrates with wit....A virtuosic combination of elegy, sociohistorical study, and picaresque adventure: altogether irrestistable."
"Review" by , "[A]n uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and family secrets....Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life."
"Review" by , "Middlesex isn't just a respectable sophomore effort; it's a towering achievement, and it can now be stated unequivocally that Eugenides' initial triumph wasn't a one-off or a fluke. He has emerged as the great American writer that many of us suspected him of being."
"Review" by , "It's a gas, a romp, the cat's pajamas....The convolutions of the novel's plot, its big gestures, its deftly handled threads of imagery and symbolism and its wealth of detail combine to produce a largely delightful read."
"Review" by , "[I]t's off proportionally, both section-to-section and overall, its two halves at odds, each interesting at times but neither truly satisfying, despite Eugenides's prodigious talent. Like Cal, it's damned by its own abundance, not quite sure what it wants to be." (read the entire Atlantic review)
"Review" by , "Here's your heads-up....Yes, it's that good....A novel of chance, family, sex, surgery, and America, it contains multitudes."
"Review" by , "A big, cheeky, splendid goes places few narrators would dare to tread...lyrical and fine."
"Review" by , "Part Tristram Shandy, part Ishmael, part Holden Caulfield, Cal is a wonderfully engaging narrator....A deeply affecting portrait of one family's tumultuous engagement with the American twentieth century."
"Review" by , "An epic....This feast of a novel is thrilling in the scope of its imagination and surprising in its tenderness."
"Review" by , "Unprecedented, astounding....The most reliably American story there is: A son of immigrants finally finds love after growing up feeling like a freak."
"Synopsis" by , The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American family who travel from a tiny village. Calliope is not like other girls and must uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction.
"Synopsis" by ,
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent drivers license...records my first name simply as Cal."

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

Middlesex is the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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