Years ago, I was invited back to Princeton to give a reading at the creative writing department. (Yes, for those who don’t know, I graduated from Princeton, which I imagine is a subject of great shame among its stellar writing facility. I like to imagine Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison and John McPhee standing around, leafing dubiously through a copy of GOOD IN BED, saying, “Jennifer Weiner?....nope, don’t remember her at all!")
So I came, I read, I fielded questions, and then I went out to dinner at a beautiful restaurant near campus along with other current members of the creative-writing staff, whose numbers currently include Jeffrey Eugenides.
I love Jeffrey Eugenides…especially MIDDLESEX. I thought it was everything a novel should be – big, and sprawling and smart and engaging, with an immediately relatable hero/ine, a book that took on family and romance history and love and did it all in a way that made you say, “No, no, you go ahead, I’m just going to read a few more pages.
I also get extremely shy and tongue-tied around big-deal literary authors I respect. This comes in part from my personality, in part from being told for ten years that I’m not a real writer and I don’t write real books, just entertaining girlie fluff (and if you think it’s easy to write “just” entertaining girlie fluff, I urge you to give it a try. It’s actually harder than you’d think.
So there we were, a party of ten or so, sharing a delicious post-reading feast. Jeffrey Eugenides was seated a few spots down the table. I had to talk to him. I had to. There was no way I was going back to Philadelphia without telling this man how much his book had meant to me. But I couldn’t work up the courage to say anything besides “please pass the salt.”
Wine, I decided, would help.
I had a glass. Then another. Then a third, putting me two and a half glasses over my limit (I’m not much of a drinker). Finally, I touched his forearm and said (or possibly slurred) “I loooooved MIDDLESEX.”
He smiled politely. “Thank you.”
I bared my purplish-stained teeth at him in a grin that was meant to be friendly but probably looked feral.
“I read it right after it came out. Right after my first daughter was born.”
This factoid was greeted with another polite smile. Please, said the look on his face, please let the poet start talking to me again. But I was undeterred. (Also, possibly, drunk).
“And, you know, even though I’d had amnio, and I knew she was a girl, I made the doctor look extra-close to be sure.” (MIDDLESEX readers will remember that much of the book’s plot hinges on an aged pediatrician’s failure to properly recognize male genitalia when presented with it. “Because,” I concluded triumphantly, in a whisper that could probably be heard in West Windsor, “nobody wants to be the mom who missed the penis!”
At that point, Jeffrey Eugenides was looking at me with an expression on his face that could only be characterized as unmitigated horror, with a soupçon of disgust. I took another gulp from my wineglass.
“Oh, c’mon,” I said. “I can’t be the only mom who’s ever done that!”
Yes, said the look on Jeffrey Eugenides’ face. Yes, you can.
So there you have it: my evening with Jeffrey Eugenides. Which, if I’m remembering right, ended with a cordial conversation about Princeton’s best cupcake shop.
And I’ll be back in Princeton, at the Public Library, this summer when THE NEXT BEST THING is released, and there may – or may not – be talk of penises. Stay tuned for tour dates...