Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked Patricia O’Hara, the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry, what she has been reading lately. Here’s what she told us:

For the past five years or so, I have read every book that each of my two daughters has brought into the house. Reading these books allows me to find common ground with my children, especially at times when I have little other insight into their inner thoughts and struggles.

Recently, Associate Professor of Biology Caroline Goutte suggested I read Dreams of My Russian Summer (Andrei Makine), which has been making quite a splash on the French scene and has been newly translated into English. Meanwhile, over the summer, my older daughter, Sarah, and I continued to work our way through a list she created with her friends, “Thirty Books You Must Read before You Go to College.” (Sarah is now in her first year of college.) The list includes some predictable reading—A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) and The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)—as well as eclectic titles including Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Rebecca Wells). Another book on the list, Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), came to me right on the heels of Dreams.

Middlesex is set in a wealthy Detroit suburb in the middle and late 20th century, but it looks back over two generations. The family narrative starts with silk farmers outside Smyrna, Greece, who escape from a Turkish massacre during World War I, flee to the United States and attempt to assimilate into American culture. The first sentence tells you what the book is truly about: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” The narrator, Callie (Cal) Stephanidies, has a genetic disorder that causes his “manhood” to be difficult to notice until later in life. Against the colorful backdrop of his Greek extended family, Cal struggles mightily with his gender and sexual identities.

Dreams is also set in the later 20th century, in the Soviet Union. The narrator and his sister spend school holidays with their French grandmother, Charlotte, in the steppes of Russia. She weaves together stories that take her grandchildren on imaginary journeys through Europe, especially in and around Paris. Back in school, back in the city, life is stereotypically bleak and barren. The family’s story is as convoluted and twisted as any Tolstoy novel, and the narrator, Andrei, both hates and holds dear his French heritage.

These two books document a coming-of-age in young men whose circumstances or biology force them to straddle two identities. Both novels describe immigrants holding onto their national identities with varying degrees of success and a second generation with new problems born of these cultural inheritances. Both describe lies and secrets revealed on deathbeds that challenge the very essences of our protagonists’ identities.
Middlesex displays a charming irreverence to authority and conventions, not unlike The Catcher in the Rye. The writing is rollicking and rolling and raucously funny. Dreams is ephemeral and interior. Makine’s writing isn’t always logical; some characters float in and out and are never heard from again. It isn’t tidy. Yet I found myself re-reading certain passages in both books. The words sparkle on the page.

Two books, two worlds, two teen characters annealed in the fire of circumstance and my own two daughters standing on the cusp of adulthood. Wish me luck.