Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Serpent's Tail/ Allen and Unwin
From the Blurb
They say the family that eats together stays together... but nobody eats like Edie, the matriarch of the Middlesteins.
Edie and Richard have been married for over 30 years, living in the Chicago suburbs. Everyone who knows them- even their own children Robin and Benny- agree that Edie is a tough woman to love, but no one expects Richard to walk out on her, especially not in her condition. Edie is 59 years old, she weighs over 300 pounds, and she's eating herself into the grave.
As Richard is shut out by the family and seeks solace in the world of internet dating, Robin is dragged back from the city and forced to rebuild a relationship with her mother. Meanwhile, Benny and his neurotic wife Rachelle try to take control of the situation. But have any of them stopped to think about whether Edie wants to be saved?
I once read that it's only necessary to include meal times in books if something happens during the meal that advances the plot. That's a funny idea, considering that so much of our culture revolves around eating. The image of food as a unifying factor in our lives is becoming more and more common, and paired with this is the idea that as flawed creatures we can become dependent on it, and form emotional attachments to it, rather than through it. This is what has happened to Edie Middlestein, in a way. She's not the world's most perfect mother, but nor is she Mommy dearest. Edie's biggest sin is that she loves to eat. She is, in a way, addicted to it. And because in our society it is becoming more and more unacceptable to be overweight, she is condemned by the other characters in the novel for the threat she poses to her own health. And fair enough. But the book also shows these other characters to be addicted to things that may kill or harm them as well. Richard is controlled by his own sexual desires. Robin is an alcoholic. Benny smokes pot still, even though he is a grown man with young children. Rachelle is a stressed out control freak. But only Edie is looked down upon- because as a society, we do not tolerate obese people. Especially not women.
What The Middlesteins shows the reader is a deep portrait of a family at a crisis point, and the depth of their complex issues with one another. It does this without trying to offer a solution. In fact, you could say it does not posit one, because there isn't one. Each character is enslaved by their own wants and needs and there is nothing they can do about it. But it does not make them bad people. In the middle of the night before a surgery she needs to fast for, Edie comes down to her kitchen for a sneaky snack, she finds her son Benny sitting at the kitchen bench reading his child's Harry Potter book. He's not there to tell her not to eat. But he's there to remind her she shouldn't, because he loves her. This is just one example of the tender, well thought out moments of familial love that scatter the pages of this book. Food is love, but love is love also. Will Edie learn this in time?
There is a chapter towards the end of the book where the reader experiences the children's bnai mitsvah from the points of view of the Middlesteins friends. This chapter takes place wholly in a strange detatched second person, we, and allows us the distance to step back and assess the people we have been reading about. It is a risky mood from a compositional point of view, but necessary, because the reader needs that opportunity to take stock of how they feel about everyone before the writer's final card is revealed.
All in all, this is a wonderful book about families and the messed up ways in which they work, and I give it four stars.