‘The Middlesteins’ by Jami Attenberg

I only had one quibble with Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins – I wanted more.

It’s the story of Edie and Richard Middlestein, married for more than thirty years, with two grown children – Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, and Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man. They’ve lived a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago for decades but suddenly things are falling apart, seemingly because of Edie’s enormous girth. She’s obsessed with food and her insatiable appetite is killing her.

Despite Edie being diagnosed with diabetes, Richard abandons his wife, leaving it to Robin, Benny, and Benny’s controlling, (thin) wife, Rachelle, to take over. Robin cannot forgive her father for leaving her mother; Benny plays peacemaker –

“He respected his mother, because she had raised him with love, and because she was a smart woman, even though she was also incredibly stupid. Also, he respected humanity in general. He respected a person’s right to weakness.”

and Rachelle gets bossy with everyone, right down to putting family members on an exercise roster with Edie.

“Emily and her grandmother, Edie, walked around the track of the high school she would attend next fall so slowly, so grudgingly, that it was possible it did not even count as exercise at all. Could one walk with loathing? They were doing it.”

The Middlesteins is exactly the kind of story I like – the nitty-gritty of family relationships, beautifully flawed characters and black humour. The narrator of the story shifts between the main characters, a clever technique as you quickly gauge Edie’s eating habits from various (and quite different) perspectives. Interestingly, in Edie’s chapters, there’s relatively few mentions of food because from her perspective, her weight does not define her.

Within a short space of time (because this is a quick read), Attenberg creates memorable characters that are so deftly constructed, so ‘normal’, that you you don’t know whether to like or dislike them – their flaws are those of the ordinary person.

At a deeper level, The Middlesteins is a ‘first world problems’ story and of course, obesity is the poster-child for first world problems. It would be easy to be critical of Edie – her ‘problem’ can’t be hidden but as each character has their own vices – notably Robin and alcohol, and Benny and his evening joint, the reader is reminded of the age old saying “He who casts the first stone…”. Within these complex layers of cause and effect, acceptance and blame, there are some universal truths, which Attenberg delivers so eloquently –

“No one was entitled to anything in this life, not the least of all love.”

“…he was nearly seventy! – and if only he could explain to her that regret can come at any time in your life, when you least expect it, and then you are stuck with it forever.”

The references to food in this book are so abundant, so lush, that I wondered if The Middlesteins could qualify for the Foodies Reading Challenge (probably not). There are superb scenes set in the kitchen when Edie was a little girl –

“…he was always adopting people, spent weekends hunched over the kitchen table talking about her, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, picking at the food in front of them, the plates of whitefish and herring, the bagels, the lox, the various spreads of sometimes indeterminate meat. Bright green pickles bursting with vinegar and salt. The cherry pastries covered with half-melted squiggles of frosting.”

and a number set in Edie’s local Chinese restaurant – I particularly loved the bit where Kenneth (the chef at the restaurant) is making noodles for Edie. I’m sure Attenberg is a food-lover – there’s a lot of love in these descriptions.

What is most noticeable is the way that Attenberg carefully ties food into nearly every scene – from Edie’s mindless midnight snacking to Rachelle’s mean, bland salads – brief references and analogies are used abundantly and the total result leaves you feeling stuffed full of the Middlesteins and their neuroses. For example, this description of a moment in Edie’s childhood –

“Edie didn’t mean to be a baby about it. She was not a whiner. She just wanted to be carried. She wanted to be carried and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread. She wanted to talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.”

and of Rachelle –

“They ate salmon, bright pink, flavourless, and Rachelle eyed everyone as they reached for a pinch of salt, anything to save this meal, and she whispered, “Not too much.” Brown rice. “Drink more water,” she commanded. Out-of-season strawberries and sugarless cookies that sucked the air out of their lives.”

4/5 Brilliant.

“‘Have you considered the possibility that your parents are better off without each other?” Only every day since her mother had told her that her father was gone. “Never,” she said, red-faced, sweaty, bloated with untruths. She had eaten too much of his mother’s brisket.”

The Middlesteins was all about the brisket. And how can anyone go past Grill Grrrl’s Better Than Sex Brisket?!


11 responses

  1. Great review Kate. Summed up my feelings exactly. What scared me about this book though, was that while I should have been scared by Edie’s behaviour, reading all the descriptions of her eating made me want to go and stuff my face!

      • I am just all wrong at banquets – no restraint. The worst ever was Abla’s Lebanese restaurant – have you ever eaten there? we would joke that you could get a banquet plus stomach pumping package! The food was just so unbelievably delicious it was completely impossible to stop.

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