-Jami Attenberg. The Middlesteins. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 2012. $27.99.
“How could she not feed her daughter?”
This is the question that begins Jami Attenberg’s new novel, The Middlesteins. Five year-old Edie is already overweight. In the first scene of the novel—we could call it the primal scene, since it marks a lifetime pattern—her mother is carrying groceries up the stairs, and accidentally drops two cans on her daughter’s fat little fingers. When her daughter cries she comforts her with bread. Food is consolation and refuge and love. Food is also temptation and addiction and danger, and when we pick up the story over fifty years later, Edie Middlestein is all grown up, with two children of her own, and a husband who has just decided to leave her. She is also nearly 350 pounds, and she is eating herself to death.
Edie Middlestein is the centre of the novel, but the subject of the novel is her family and their response to her slow death-by-chocolate (and big Macs, and potato chips, and especially Chinese food. You may need to read this book somewhere you can buy decent dumplings. For a novel about obesity and addiction, the book makes food sound pretty tasty. Plan accordingly). Her husband can’t stand to watch her get sicker and sicker, and wonders if he may still be able to find love somewhere else. Her son Benny is immersed in work and family, and dulls the edges of his concern with pot. Her daughter Robin worries and drinks too much and makes ineffectual attempts at intervention. Her skinny, controlling daughter-in-law Rachelle stalks her to see what she’s eating.
Attenberg’s writing is striking for her quality of sympathy and absence of judgment. Characters who initially seem clichés emerge with rounded edges and hidden depths. We can even sympathize with Richard Middlestein, who is ostracized by his family. But despite the family’s attempts at intervention, Edie keeps eating. From pretty early on in the novel, we know that Edie Middlestein is going to die. There will be no heart-warming intervention, no sudden revelation, no near-death change of heart, and despite a late-in-the-novel subplot about a Chinese restaurateur and widower named Mr. Song, she won’t be saved by love. You don’t get to save anyone else, especially if they’re family.
The novel targets all kids of middles: Middle-America, the Middle-class, and a certain kind of middle-of-the-road Judaism that in contrast to the well-nourished heroine of the book is curiously emaciated. This is a Judaism made up of equal parts tradition, guilt, habit, convention, and bar-mitzva hip-hop. So you think you can hora? Read the bar-mitzva scene, or the scene where Richard Middlestein drags his grandchildren to synagogue, and shudder in appalled recognition.
Jami Attenberg is the author of two previous novels and a short story collection. This new novel—reviewed just about everywhere, including Oprah magazine, and currently number eight on Amazon’s best books of the year—has propelled her into a whole different stratosphere. In an interview, Attenberg said that when she was in high school one of her English teachers said her writing was a combination of “Anne Tyler and Nora Ephron.” “How freaking dark must I have been?” she asks. But The Middlesteins isn’t dark as much as it’s bittersweet. We don’t always get what we want, it suggests, and we certainly don’t always get what we deserve. But sometimes we have unexpected moments of connection, like in the final scene of the novel, an instant of grace that redeems some of the losses of the novel and that left me with a catch in my throat.
Ariela Freedman is an Associate Professor at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College. She lives in Montreal where she battles a big reading problem. You can check out her blog at thephilosophicalbrothel.