The Middlesteins: A Novel

BY Jami Attenberg

(Grand Central, $24.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Jami Attenberg, who is from Chicago (and really understands the place, as this novel demonstrates) now lives in Brooklyn (as so many authors do). She has previously published a story collection, “Instant Love,” and two novels, “The Kept Man” and “The Melting Season,” and it looks like “The Middlesteins” is her breakout book.  She has written essays and criticism for The New York Times, Time Out New York, BookForum, Nerve, and other publications and also “fights crime in her spare time,” as this delightful entry from confirms.

What is this book about?

“Food was made of love, and love was made of food.” That about sums it up for Edie Middlestein, who, as they say, is digging her grave with a spoon and fork. A smart lawyer with a prickly personality, Edie is not so wise about her lifelong consuming passion, which is a passion for consuming. Married for many years to Richard, a pharmacist whose stores are not keeping up with the CVS’s of the world, and mother of cranky Robin, a teacher who drinks too much, and passive pot-smoking Benny, who is thoroughly whipped by his perfectionist wife, Rachelle, Edie eats and eats and eats her way up to 350 pounds, out of a job and into the hospital. Then Richard shakes up the entire family by leaving her, and Edie finds comfort in the unlikely attentions of a Chinese chef who is still mourning his deceased wife. Meanwhile, the plans for Benny and Rachelle’s twins’ elaborate b’nai mitzvah create their own consuming tsunami of stress.

Why you’ll like it:

Attenberg has created characters who in many ways beg you not to like them, but she does it with such skill that you find yourself taking everyone’s side in this group of contentious Chicagoans. Edie is fierce, but touchingly vulnerable. Richard, frustrated-beyond-fixing-things, does an ignoble thing, but Attenberg makes him sympathetic nonetheless. Robin is afraid of love but needs it, and her loyalties are as strong as Edie’s appetite. Benny is a good man who wonders why they all can’t just get along, and Rachelle’s intense need to control comes from her fervent wish to make life perfect for them all. This novel of contemporary life with a Jewish accent is a wonderful blend of funny and sad, wise and stubborn, familiar and unpredictable. You’ll eat it up.

What others are saying:

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012 says: “At five years old, Edie already tipped 62 pounds. She’d clearly “surpassed luscious,” but how could her lioness of a mother–or her father, who’d starved all the way from Ukraine to Chicago, and so also felt “carnal, primal, about food”–resist feeding her? They all believed that “food was made of love … and they could never deny themselves a bit of anything they desired.” So Edie indulged for decades, expanding finally to 350 pounds, discovering (when Richard, her husband of 30 years, gave up trying to stop her and moved out) that food is “a wonderful place to hide.” Her adult children’s extravagant worry–mounting with each diabetic surgery and undistracted by her grandchildren’s choreographed, chocolate fountained b’nai mitzvah preparations–do nothing to dampen Edie’s enthusiasm to consume, and Attenberg describes Edie’s meals with a sensual relish that could verge on repulsive if it didn’t so readily trigger our own desires. The same story told with less compassionate humor could have easily been distasteful, but “The Middlesteins” has a light, tragicomic touch that lends it unexpectedly poignant heft.

…Attenberg writes with restraint and just a dash of bitterness. The result is a story that repeatedly tosses off little bursts of wisdom that catch you off guard…[She] is superb at mocking the cliches of middle-class life by giving them the slightest turn to make people suddenly real and wholly sympathetic…Attenberg’s success lies in miniatures; she mutes even the few potential moments of conflict, focusing instead on the inaudible repercussions. But with a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, she renders this family’s ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting,” says Ron Charles in the Washington Post.

“A panoply of neurotic characters fills Attenberg’s multigenerational novel about a Midwestern Jewish family. Shifting points of view tell the story of the breakup and aftermath of Edie and Richard Middlestein’s nearly 40-year marriage as Edie slowly eats herself to death. Richard and his brilliant but demanding and ever larger wife raised two children. Robin is intense and hostile; Benny lives an idyll with his wife, Rachelle, in the Chicago suburbs, sharing a joint after putting their twins to bed at night. Much of Rachelle’s time is spent assuring that the twins’ b’nai mitzvah extravaganza goes off without a hitch. When complications surrounding Edie’s diabetes precipitate Richard’s filing for divorce, the already tightly wound Rachelle becomes obsessed with the family’s physical and moral health. Soon the affable Benny’s hair is falling out in clumps. Attenberg (Instant Love) makes her characters’ thoughts—Richard and Benny in particular—seem utterly real, and her wry, observational humor often hits sideways rather than head-on. Edie’s overeating, described with great sensuality, will resonate, with only the obstreperousness of all three generations of Middlestein women (granddaughter Emily included) marring this wonderfully messy and layered family portrait,” says Publishers Weekly.

Library Journal says:

“…Attenberg finds ample comic moments in this wry tale about an unraveling marriage. She has a great ear for dialog, and the novel is perfectly paced. Her characters are all believable, if not always sympathetic, though Edie’s romance with a Chinese restaurant owner seems improbable. VERDICT Attenberg seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy in this warm and engaging family saga of love and loss.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills Branch have copies of “The Middlesteins.”

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