A Novel by Jami Attenberg
2012 / 275 Pages
For Edie Middlestein, food has always been more than just a source of nourishment and comfort – it’s a dangerous obsession, and it’s tearing her family apart. Edie and Richard have been married for more than 30 years when Richard abruptly announces that he is leaving his morbidly obese, depressed middle-aged wife for a younger woman named Beverly. The rest of the Middlestein family is devastated by this news – especially Richard and Edie’s children. Their son, Benny, thinks he’s coping well enough, but no one can ignore the fact that he’s smoking more pot than ever and his hair is falling out in massive clumps. Their daughter, Robin, is extraordinarily angry at her father for leaving her mother in such a vulnerable state, and Richard fears that his relationship with his children will never be the same.
As Benny and his wife, Rachelle, prepare for their children’s b’nai mitzvah party, family relationships deteriorate even further, and the Middlesteins are left spinning out of control – each one hoping that someone else will take the wheel and steer the family in a better direction. Edie is of the philosophy that “food [is] made of love, and love [is] made of food,” but Jami Attenberg’s novel showcases the fine line between comfort and obsession. Food is something we turn to in times of joy, sorrow, celebration, and anxiety – not to mention the fact that we all need food to survive. But there are too few steps between indulgence and gluttony – and Edie Middlestein won’t admit to herself that she crossed that line a long time ago.
But The Middlesteins isn’t just a novel about food. It’s also about family dynamics, religion, tradition, depression, and coping mechanisms. It’s a lot to pack into a novel that is so short, but Jami Attenberg manages to artfully and skillfully weave together this family’s story of love, tragedy, regret, and celebration. At times, the novel is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – specifically in regard to the narration style and domestic themes, but it’s also funny, sarcastic, and surprisingly sentimental. As the holiday season arrives and we anticipate close quarters with family members that will inevitably generate stress and opportunities for insults and regret, just remember this novel’s simple, but veritable advice: “Hold on to hope. Hold on to love. Hold on to your family, because they won’t always be around.”
Meet the Middlesteins, or perhaps maybe you shouldn’t, as they’re not looking their best right now. The fictional family at the heart of Jami Attenberg’s fourth novel certainly is a dysfunctional bunch, but they also have an enormous wealth of love for one another.
Edie, the family’s matriarch, an extremely gifted, now retired lawyer who also happens to be extremely obese is the central figure of this tale. Weight, or more specifically, issues related to overeating have always plagued Edie for as long as she can remember. She doesn’t fight the urges she gets to binge with crazy diets, exercise, or risky surgeries however. No, instead Edie has accepted herself for who she believes herself to be. A strong, powerful, overweight woman who isn’t the least bit concerned with what others think of her physical appearance.
This stance would be a powerful, uplifting message to overweight individuals the world over if only Edie’s health wasn’t suffering as a direct result of her inability to take ownership and responsibility for the fact that her lifestyle has become extremely hazardous to her health. As much as her family wants her to gain control over her eating, Edie moves in the opposite direction, believing that she’s perfectly fine, even when given serious medical advice to the contrary.
While Edie and her weight issues might be considered the focus of the novel, her decision to essentially eat herself to death, and the cascading effects of her selfishness on those that love her the most are of primary concern to Attenberg. Yes, as an adult Edie is fully within her rights to decide what’s best for herself, but her inability to look beyond her own existence and see the effect her condition is having on those closest to her is heartbreaking.
As the novel opens, the event that sets the stage for a major family divide is the announcement that Edie’s husband Richard is leaving her and filing for divorce. He will not stand by a moment longer as his wife of over thirty years, the mother of his two adult children, the grandmother to two teenagers, slowly kills herself. He’s had enough.
Daughter Robin has her own set of issues when it comes to both her mother’s weight and her own, but in her mind her father’s actions are inexcusable. Who leaves a woman, the supposed love of their life, when she’s needs them the most?
Rather than deal with his mother directly, son Benny usually delegates the responsibility to his wife, but as of late Edie’s eating issues have pushed her past an invisible breaking point which finds her altering her family’s food consumption in extreme ways. She gives new meaning to the phrase “healthy living” and sadly her husband and their twins have to suffer along.
For his part, the rift between his parents has stressed Benny to the point that he’s losing his hair. Lost in her own world, Edie can’t possibly imagine what could cause this. She believes her family comes from healthy stock and has zero history of hair loss. How could this happen?
Attenberg’s love for the fictional family she’s created clearly shines through. Her prose may be difficult at times, and her interesting technique of briefly flashing forward to future events only to snap back into the present tense can be a bit off-putting at first, but once you realize that The Middlesteins is much more than a novel about being overweight the brilliance of her pacing, story telling, and plotting clearly shines through.
This one might start out seeming fairly straightforward, but as the reader moves deeper into the story it becomes increasingly clear that it’s instead a clever examination of how one person’s self-centered actions can adversely affect the lives of those who love and support them. Edie Middlestein is not an easy person to like, not for the reader or her family, but she does serve as an important reminder to us all to stop and fully weigh the potential outcome of our actions beyond just our own needs and desires before we proceed.