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The Middlesteins

Jami Attenberg

(Grand Central; US: Oct 2012)

Eating should be simple. You have your whole grains, fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and lean meats. You eat to fuel your body and to commune with family and friends. You indulge in the occasional culinary art at the gourmet restaurant downtown. See? In print, it seems so simple. But in day-to-day life, obviously, it can be complicated. 


Jami Attenberg gets that, as she proves in The Middlesteins, her new novel about a complicated Jewish family from Chicago. The Middlestein matriarch, Edie, is obese and diabetic, as hungry for life as she is about everything else—work, life, love, justice. In response to her disorder, the rest of her family is just as crazy about each passing meal, although their insanity takes different forms.


Edie’s daughter-in-law, Rachelle, feeds her family mostly vegetables, cut into the tiniest pieces and usually raw. Edie’s daughter, Robin, counts her morning run as the highlight of her day, although it’s probably really her evening wine binge. Edie’s son, Benny, needs a nightly joint just to survive his wife and kids. Edie’s husband, Richard, is divorcing her, searching for greener pastures on dating websites. No one knows how to save Edie, but they all feel a little bit better by despising Richard.


The group almost feels plucked from a Jonathan Franzen novel (and, as it so happens, the author’s praise adorns The Middlesteins cover), but this family has a little more sweetness and relatability to it. They watch So You Think You Can Dance? on TV. They send party invitations in the form of magnets.


There’s something very “ABC Family” about Benny and Rachelle’s household, along with the grim reality and necessary criticism of the modern family. The whole thing is very appealing. It’s almost as if Franzen wrote about America’s food issues for Modern Family. In other words, it’s an expert blend of grit, intelligence, humor, and heart. It’s a must-read.


That’s not an easy balance to strike, but Attenberg pulls it off exceptionally well. She also writes about obesity (a risky proposition) in a thoroughly clear-eyed, generous and likely accurate way. Edie has all the wonderful qualities you might expect from a fiery former lawyer, but also many of the downfalls. The pros: she’s smart, open-minded, tireless, focused, persuasive, sensitive, and, when she’s in a good mood, very charming. The cons: she’s obsessive, stubborn, and impossible to argue with.


She’s also sad and lonely. Maybe she stayed in a doomed marriage for a little too long. Of course, there’s more to the story than just that.


Flashbacks are strewn helpfully throughout The Middlesteins, and in one, Edie is a young mother (210 pounds) eating with her kids at McDonald’s. Edie has a Big Mac, McRib, large fries, Diet Coke, chocolate shake, chocolate chip cookie, and an apple pie to split with the kids. Robin and Benny each have Happy Meals. As she eats enough food for at least two adults, myriad thoughts swirl obsessively through her mind, prompting the narration, “Holy cow, she was thinking a lot about food.”

She also thinks about her kids, and about how motherhood bores her sometimes. “Don’t you guys have anything of interest to say?” she asks before feeling ashamed, like a bad mother. She also thinks excitedly about her food, particularly the McRib—“because it was a new sandwich, and how often did a new sandwich come along?”—and about the lovely components of the Big Mac, like the “salmon-pink special sauce” and the middle bun, “an extra layer of spongy pleasure.” Her openness, passion, and voraciousness—along with her boredom and guilt—certainly get the best of her.


Then, she dips into extreme self-loathing: “Thirty years old, and she had failed. Look at the rubble, the empty fast-food wrappers, the mashed up plastic toy parts. She had no idea what her ass looked like anymore; it had been so long since she’d dared to look in the mirror. Edie, Edie, Edie.” Then she remembers, “She had a husband. He existed.” So she checked the marriage box off on her life’s to-do list, even if that meant using food to fulfill her passions.


When Richard finally arrives to the McDonald’s, two hours late, Edie explodes with anger, taking her food to a far booth to binge in private. She describes eating alone as “perfection”. In this scene, Attenberg covers all the angles, giving just about every reason for why a brilliant but depressed woman might possibly eat herself to death.

Most of The Middlesteins takes place after Edie’s binging damage has been done, when she weighs well over 300 pounds. The aftermath is palpable. Her family watches stunned, unsure of how to save her, so they focus their attention on their own diets, obsessing about food like it’s the only thing that can save (or kill) a person. Rachelle is so focused on diet that her own teenage daughter could literally fall out the window, and Rachelle would hardly notice.


But they’re all okay; they do their best, and Attenberg blesses them with saving graces. Rachelle may be a lying housewife who shivers “like a small, expensive dog”, and she may spin her accidental college pregnancy as an opportunity to one-up her girlfriends, but she ultimately loves her family, and she throws a very nice party to boot. Benny is supportive and charming, and the kids are all right. Robin doesn’t hurt anyone as much as she hurts herself.


From beginning to end, though, The Middlesteins is Edie’s story, from the flashbacks of rye bread with her immigrant parents, to the noodles, chili peppers, lamb, and popping cumin lovingly prepared by her new lover, a Chinese chef who memorizes poetry, cooks with heart, and sees Edie for the beauty she is, despite her disease. From start to bitter-sweet end, Edie is loved.


The Middlesteins is as smart as it is entertaining, as heart-felt as it is thoughtful. It will give readers plenty to consider, providing new ways in which to see food and each other.

Rating:

Sarah Watson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and book critic.


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