Author: Jami Attenberg
No. of Pages: 288
”For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food--thinking about it, eating it--and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.
When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle-- a whippet thin perfectionist-- is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?
With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.”
Thoughts: For a relatively short novel, there is a lot packed between the pages of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins There is the family dynamic of the Middlesteins – overbearing and obese Edie, mild-mannered and obfuscated Richard, peace-loving Benny, argumentative and lost Robin, perfectionist and obdurate Rachelle, and then the twins who are forced to navigate their way around the chaos. Their relationships to one another provided the backbone of the entire novel, as each comes to grips with the disruption to the family that Richard’s departure has caused. Then there is the psychological and physiological issues of food. The complex interactions and relationships with each other, with their neighbors and friends, and with the inanimate objects with which they surround themselves are by turns hilarious, bittersweet, and heartbreaking and provide the ultimate tale for the modern era.
Food and obesity are very much at the top of current cultural awareness, and Ms. Attenberg uses the heightened consciousness to create scenarios and characters to which any reader can relate. Through Edie and Rachelle, she maneuvers through the complicated psychological and devastating physiological side effects of food obsessions, thereby allowing the reader to understand that there are no easy answers and no quick fixes to this extremely hot topic. For Edie, food is love and happiness and fills a persistent emotional void, while Rachelle sees it as just one more item to control within her sharply ordered life. Whereas Edie eats to find solace, Rachelle stops eating or drastically reduces her eating to create order among chaos. Both women’s approaches to food are unhealthy in the extreme. Interestingly enough, while Rachelle explains her actions as being the healthy choice, as setting an example for her children and for her mother-in-law, it is towards Edie that the reader sympathizes. With all of her health issues and her unwholesome attitudes towards food, a reader knows that at least hers is a love affair with the very objects that cross her lips. A reader understands that to take away the very thing she most loves in the world would be a surer death sentence than all the food-attributed diseases that currently ravage her body. Still, while a reader might sympathize or identify with Edie more than Rachelle, a reader is simultaneously horrified by Edie’s own actions and reactions to food. The descriptions of her eating habits tends towards the obscene while the descriptions of her health issues are a disgusting reminder of how dangerous a weapon food can be. It is a multifaceted reaction to a convoluted situation that continues to confound experts and novices alike.
Much like the food issues, a reader’s reactions and opinions of the Middlestein family is thoroughly complex. Even disregarding her weight, Edie is a major force within the lives of the Middlesteins and their circle of influence. Much like within her own family, a reader’s reaction to her is decidedly mixed. One can admire her generosity towards others while at the same time abhor her relationship towards her husband. Similarly, one can sympathize with Richard’s reasons for leaving Edie and desire for happiness while disapproving of the timing of his decision. The same holds true for the rest of the family. They are all neither completely good nor completely evil, and a reader will find himself fluctuating wildly among differing opinions for each of them. In other words, it is a family that is as close to realistic as one can possibly get in a work of fiction.
The Middlestein family consists of strong, opinionated family members, and The Middlesteins reflects this passionate dynamic with its easy evocation of fierce emotions and intense opinions about each of the characters. The fact that these opinions and emotions vacillate so often in the course of the novel is proof that Ms. Attenberg understands familial relationships and the duality of humanity. She tackles the intricate issues of relationships and obsessions with delicacy and with spot-on wit that eases the sting of the realism behind her words. The Middlesteins is a take-no-prisoners type of novel and at 288 pages, it is a short but extremely powerful read designed to get people thinking about their own relationships while shining the spotlight on the evolving and increasingly urgent obesity epidemic.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to NetGalley and to Hachette Book Group for my review copy!