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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Club: Middlesex

Last night was one of the most fun, most interesting book clubs we've had.  And dare I say, it even included a surprise ending that left us with our jaws dropped and our bellies rolling with laughter!  The novel was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  If you are in a book club, you must read this book.  Even if you aren't, you should read this book!  This is a great novel about immigrating to America, pursuing the American dream by hook or by crook, complex family and social relationships, and one person's quest to find identity and belonging through a complicated maze of circumstances.  You will read things about America that will surprise you and perhaps make you feel a bit uncomfortable.  There are some strange and difficult sexually oriented sections but it's more strange than erotic and they are germane to the story.  You will see the immigrant's struggle and some of the biases that are unfairly attached to immigrants.  You will feel the pain of leaving a homeland because of war and seeking to build a life elsewhere.  You will see how one generation builds upon another to create a better world for the offspring to come.  You will see how a young person navigates relationships, family, school life and friendships.  I was deeply moved by the attention to detail Eugenides pays to just about everything.  Some of my favorite lines in the book include the following:
On marriage:  "To be happy you have to find variety in repetition."
On being the "right" kind of immigrant in America: "It was about Mayflower and Plymouth Rock and everything that happened for two minutes 4oo years ago instead of everything that had happened since…instead of everything that was happening now."
On seeking to adapt to the new world whilst hanging onto the former: The wife packed her husband's lunch filled with Greek delicacies into the new American invention...the brown paper bag.
So many beautifully written moments that will awaken a variety of feelings from within.  It certainly did within each of us gathered around Mary Beth's table last night.
The title of Middlesex is layered with meaning.  Of course, the town is called Middlesex, but more importantly, the main character is a reflection of being a middle sex...the character is a hermaphrodite.  Yes, this lends itself to some odd moments in the story and there are definitely some morally questionable bits as to how this came about...siblings and cousins marry one another, but the author handles these delicacies with such care that the reader is drawn into the complicated web of family life with compassion and interest rather than with disgust.  The coming of age core of the book is in part why critics have lauded this novel as one of the great American novels and it really is quite a poignant story of a young person's struggle to figure out who she/he really is.
So at the end of this lively, wonderful, layered conversation, the most venerated of our book club members, an amazing, insightful and wonderfully articulate woman of 81 years young looks across the table and says, "I want to ask Jodi a specific question but I don't know if I dare to."  Now, I have been asked many things in my life and I have been told many things and I have seen many complicated, messy and painful situations in people's lives so I was pretty confident that whatever zinger this dear friend would throw at me, I could handle it.  Believe me, I've never been so unprepared for a question in my life!
She first established that in hermaphrodites, one sexual organ is usually more developed than the other therefore the ones with well developed female organs can have children whilst those with dominant male organs cannot.  So the big question of the night was simply this: "Is it possible, that the virgin Mary was a hermaphrodite and therefore that is how the virgin birth came about?"  After I picked myself up off the floor and scooped my jaw back into my face, I replied, "Well, I don't think that would preach well on Christmas Eve!"  It was one of those wonderful, unexpected and bizarre twists to book club that we have come to love and appreciate!  To think that the thought had actually crossed her mind whilst reading this book was the most remarkable thing of all to me.  It was a wonderful night.  I always feel so filled with with thoughts, opinions, ideas and friendship when I return from book club.  I'm very thankful for the range of thought this group brings to my matter how nutty, however outrageous it may be.