Tag Archives: The Middlesteins

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.

The Books of BEA (And a little treat for you!)

27th June 2012

How have I not yet managed to talk about the books I got at BEA? I will tell you, though, that I am so excited about the books I had shipped home. There are only 15 of them, but wow, do they look good. These 15 represent almost all different publishers, many of them independent. They range from stories about an artist who does reproductions to a biography of a body part. Of the 15 books, 8 are by women, 7 are by men. Three are distinctly nonfiction, with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina in a category of its own. In all their, ahem, glory…

From the top:

From the top:

  • Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City Who Made the World by Boris Johnson/Riverhead Books
  • Instant by Chris Bonanos/Princeton Architectural Press (October 2012)
  • The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell/The New Press (October 2012)
  • Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mary Jo Bang/Graywolf Press (August 2012)
  • Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf/Ecco (September 2012)
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles/Penguin
  • Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Julianne Garey/Soho (December 2012)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Harper (July 2012)

Which will I be reading first? It’s almost as though I’m afraid to break the spell, as though if I choose one, the rest will disappear. That said, I think I’ll start with the slimmest volume, Beside the Sea. Lori and Tara actually told me about the book, saying: “It’s about a mother who is planning to kill her children.” Pleasant, right? Except that my Master’s thesis was about women who kill their children throughout literature. Specifically, the title is The Dialectic of Maternity: From Medea to the Moderns. Snazzy, huh? Ok, so it sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s interesting how many many time this sort of story repeats itself in literature (and in life). So that will be my first pick.

And for those of you who weren’t able to make it, I have a BEA bag just for you. In the Random House tote bag are the BEA edition of The New York Review of Books, Anne Lamott’s newest, Some Assembly Required, in audio, Next to Love by Ellen Feldman (this one is so good!), and A Fatal Debt by John Gapper. Something for everyone! The only rules are you cannot have attended BEA, and you must leave me a comment. Which book would you most love to get your hands on? Is there any particular publisher you’re interested in? Do you think I’ve got 15 winners in these stacks? Make sure you comment by next Tuesday, July 3, at midnight!

UPDATE: Rachel won the BEA bag o’ goodies. Congrats!