A virtuosic combination of elegy, sociohistorical study, and picaresque adventure: altogether irresistible.

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MIDDLESEX

The verbal energy and narrative range of Saul Bellow’s early fiction (say, The Adventures of Augie March) are born again in this dazzling second novel, long-awaited since The Virgin Suicides (1993).

Narrator Calliope “Cal” Stephanides is a Greek-American hermaphrodite who eventually becomes a 41-year-old male living in Germany and working for the US State Department. But prior to that—thanks to Cal’s assumed ability to “enter the heads” of his relatives and forebears—we’re treated to a comic saga that begins in 1922 in the Middle Eastern port city of Smyrna, where Cal’s paternal grandparents, Desdemona and Eleutherios (“Lefty”), fall into incestuous love, escape the Turkish siege of their homeland by finagling passage to America (en route to Detroit, where they have family), then, concocting new identities, marry while aboard ship. Eugenides produces one brilliant set piece after another as Desdemona grapples with lifelong guilt; Lefty works briefly at a Henry Ford factory, then prospers as a restaurateur; their son Milton, following ominously in Lefty’s footsteps, marries his second cousin Tessie, becomes a hot-dog mogul, and fathers the medical miracle that is Calliope. The story is studded with superbly observed characters, including prematurely senile Dr. Philobosian, who examines, and fails to notice, Calliope’s remarkable sexual configuration; Lefty’s Cagney-like brother-in-law, bootlegger-entrepreneur Jimmy Zizmo; and the parade of comrades, presumptive lovers, and confidants encountered by Cal as she/he grows into gender confusion and away from suburban comfort in Grosse Pointe, survives the chaos of the late 1960s, and lights out for the territory of—what else?—San Francisco, finally making a kind of peace with her/his divided nature. Middlesex vibrates with wit, and shapes its outrageous premise (which perhaps owes a partial debt to Alan Friedman’s unjustly forgotten 1972 novel, Hermaphrodeity) into a beguiling panorama of the century in which America itself struggled to come to terms with its motley heritage and patchwork character.

A virtuosic combination of elegy, sociohistorical study, and picaresque adventure: altogether irresistible.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2002

ISBN: 0-374-19969-8

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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