Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

23rd October 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Grand Central Publishing at BEA 2012.

Edie Middlestein is eating herself to death. As a child, she’s taught that food equals love, her mother passing her bread when she’s hurt, and as Edie grows in age and size, she can’t stop herself eating. Her mother and father died when she was a young adult, leaving her to marry one of the first men she dates: Richard. Thirty years later, Edie is over 300 pounds and still can’t stop eating. Diabetic and in failing health, her crisis evident to her family, Edie’s life is falling apart. Richard leaves, eager to escape and unable to watch Edie’s decline. Her daughter Robin, intense and alone, visits rarely. Her son Benny is married to Rachelle and has twins, twins conceived before the two were married.

Obsession runs throughout this book, in a variety of ways that are only evident as each story comes together. These characters are single minded, particularly Rachelle who becomes so obsessed with her mother-in-law’s health that she structures her family’s meals into health food manifestos, leaving nothing to taste and ironically, doing the opposite of what Edie’s own mother did for her. In her stringency, Rachelle leaves her family feeling unloved.

Richard, sad and missing the Edie he once loved, bears the brunt of it. Leaving Edie when she’s sick is the ultimate betrayal, and his daughter and daughter-in-law want nothing to do with him. His son, his caring, sweet son doesn’t quite feel the same, but he’s not sure why. In fact, no one in this family is quite sure why they care so much, except that they know they’re supposed to.

In the realm of family dramas, this one has a bit more heart, but even with an omniscient narrator, its main family members sometimes seem unknowable and flat. The prose, too, suffers, at times feeling a bit forced, like in this passage from Edie’s boyfriend, Kenneth alluding to William Carlos Williams’ poem:

He grasped desperately for another poem he had memorized once, the exact lines of which eluded him. It had something to do with an icebox and plums and being sorry for eating them, even though the person speaking in the poem was clearly not sorry at all. It had always felt like a joke to him. The funny poems were usually the ones he remembered. It still felt like a joke now. It read like a note you would leave someone on the kitchen table when you were walking out the door and never coming back.

Then other times, the observations are near painful in their loveliness, as in this line from Edie’s granddaughter Emily:

She pitied him for his blindness, and she envied him for his freedom, and if she had known just a few months before, during more innocent times, that she would feel that way for the rest of her life, not just about Josh but about a lot of people in the world, which is to say (in a polite way) conflicted, she would have treasured those unaware, nonjudgmental, preadolescent moments more thoroughly…Because once you know, once you really know how the world works, you can’t unknow it.

In the end, The Middlesteins embodies the idea that we don’t choose our families, and that, if anything, that lack of choice stains our relationships, constantly making us question and validate our connections to one another.

P.S. Check out others’ opinions on Goodreads.

  • Christina

    I want! I love books about family dynamics.

    • Then this book is definitely for you.

  • Charlie

    I like the concept you’ve mentioned at the end. It’s weird how at times family can feel forced, at other very natural and right, and balancing those and living through them never comes to a conclusion. I can see why the weight issue would be used as a starting point, as it can cause all sorts of issues itself. Sounds a good book.

    • That’s what I really liked about this one. There was a tangible problem, not just something sort of vague. It helped to illustrate the issues a bit more.

  • When I saw this one, I almost requested it but then I saw an excerpt somewhere and decided the writing wasn’t for me. I don’t like flat characters. I know that would bother me for sure.

    • Yes, and it did. Though, unfortunately, I’m finding this more and more of a problem lately.

  • Oooh, wow — I love the frame/premise but v disappointed the characters felt flat — that always bugs me — I hate the distance.

  • Kate at Sorella Style

    fascinating! I just stumbled on your blog from Elements of Style – it’s great! Have you read “My Year With Eleanor”? Fantastic read…

    • Hi, Kate! So glad you stopped by. I haven’t read that one but have heard good things… my list is neverending. 🙂

  • Colleen

    It does sound fascinating and l like your analysis about family “staining” our other relationships but I think I would find the subject matter to be too much

    • This one is getting a lot of attention – as family sagas typically do – but after a while they are a bit much, aren’t they? I’m not sure what it is. I enjoyed much of this, but I do think writers have a tough time analyzing/depicting an entire family.