Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I have a very conflicted relationship with food. I know that I eat for more than just sustenance. When we moved when I was in high school, I gained 30 pounds in 3 months. Was I growing? Possibly. But I clearly turned to food as comfort at that point in my life (and at other points subsequently). I was lucky though because I was a very active kid and that didn't dump me into the obese range. Now that I'm a lot older and not so active, I still have a complicated relationship with food (and it shows). Even knowing that I turn to the great white psychiatrist (aka my fridge) or the comforting closet (aka my pantry) when I shouldn't, I can't seem to break the cycle of poor food choices and looking for solace in food. So I was very curious to read Jami Attenberg's new novel, The Middlesteins, about a wife, mother, and grandmother who is eating herself to death and the ways in which her immediate family handles both her compulsive overeating and the reasons behind it.

Edie Middlestein is killing herself with food. She is morbidly obese and suffering from advanced, uncontrolled diabetes and arterial disease, and she's facing surgery. It is at this point that Richard, her husband of forty some years, walks out on her and files for divorce. And while food is the set up and the biggest force in Edie's life, this is really more a novel about connection, family, belonging, and the ways we cope with, or fail to cope with, life than it is about the obesity epidemic swallowing the country. Edie has always used food to dull her feelings, right back into childhood when her mother used food as a reward and a solace for her emotionally needy daughter. Her weight has varied over the years (chapters start with the number on the scale at that point in her life) and we can see how outside events have negatively and positively affected that number once she has internalized them.

Edie became a wife, a mother, a lawyer but not one of those things filled the void in her like food does. She and Richard have not had a happy marriage for a long time and the timing of his leaving is viewed by their children as completely selfish.  It alienates him from his family and friends but he can no longer sustain the life they have been leading. This leaves the care of Edie, in the aftermath of her surgery and her doctor's pronouncement that she will die if she doesn't curb her out of control appetite, to her children, riddled as they are with their own destructive tendencies and unhappy coping mechanisms. Middlestein son Benny smokes pot most evenings after his own teenaged twins are in bed. Benny's wife Rachelle obsessively tracks her own family's food and throws herself into planning an extravagant B'nai Mitzvah for the twins. Middlestein daughter Robin is an angry alcoholic who doesn't know how to maintain a healthy relationship. And it is these three adults, adrift in their own lives, publically competent but really only barely coping themselves, who suddenly feel a responsibility (and if truth be told, resentment as well) toward Edie and her health.

The novel is narrated by several of the characters, including a chorus of Edie and Richard's friends from synagogue, the people who are supposed to be Edie's tribe, and this gives the reader insight not only into others' feelings about Edie, her voracious eating, and Richard's defection from their house of recrimination and bitterness, but it also offers glimpses of their own stunted inability to love and to know how to live in this world. It is a grand view of everyone's dysfunction, which if not as personally destructive as Edie's gorging, is just as checked out of the deeper emotions of life. The emotional void and flat affect that looms over each of the characters makes this a tough, depressing, and even exhausting read. None of the characters was particularly connected, each refusing meaningful intervention in each others' lives, not just in the case of Edie, but really in all instances. Rife with unhappiness, Attenberg has offered no easy answers about either comfort food as a way to temporarily fill a hole nor about the way to embrace high emotion and ultimately to love. There are tiny glimmers of hope for the future in the text but they are overwhelmed by the more painful, lackluster lives of these characters who stand alone and isolated despite being a family. Well written and full of issues both personal and public, this might be uncomfortable to read but ultimately it is a great book club choice if you can stomach the bleakness of the tone.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU for your wonderful review.

    I have had this on my shelf since last September. It sounds as though I need to read it.


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