Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Middlesteins

by Jami Attenberg
 Grand Central  2012
272 pages     Fiction

Last night at book club we discussed The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg for nearly an hour, almost a new record! The hostess served Chinese food; one person told about growing up in Skokie; and another talked about a morbidly obese aunt and how that dear aunt was in her mind the whole time she was reading about Edie, the mother in the novel. All in all it was a great book club meeting. 

As those of you who read my blog know, I am not a great fan of family problem novels, but I read The Middlesteins with great empathy and understanding. The Middlesteins are a middle class Jewish family in suburban Chicago. Now in their early 60s, Edie and Richard's marriage has fallen apart. Richard left because he finally realized that Edie was a) eating herself to death, b) she didn't love him and nothing he did could save her, and c) he didn't want to be buried along with her. Other family members include their children Bennie, his wife and twins, and Robin and her partner, Daniel. None of the characters are loveable, but all are interesting enough that you can read about them without going "Oh, for heaven's sake!" 

Bennie and Robin are very angry with their father for leaving their mother in the midst of her obesity-related illness, and Rachelle, Bennie's wife, has forbidden Richard to see his grandchildren. (The grandchildren, by the way, are perfect 13-year-old characters in all their eye-rolling, texting, and inappropriate laughing glory.) Bennie and Robin support their mother at the expense of their father, trying for one last ditch effort to save their mother's life. But Edie seems impervious to all the family's efforts, intent as she is on the owner of the Chinese restaurant where she eats almost every night. Kenneth, the restaurant owner, loves Edie in part because she loves his food.

So, as you can see--a family problem novel. The reviewer in the New York Times asks the pertinent question about why Edie embarked on this self-destruction in the first place. "What's remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie's despair." The reviewer says that the message of The Middlesteins is that life is full of disappointments and that in our "efforts to ease our pain, we often make decisions that have the opposite effect. We leave marriages that have become difficult and later experience loneliness and terrible searing regret. We wall ourselves off from negative emotion and end up blocking out love. "

Wow! All of this sounds like a real downer, and indeed there are moments of intense agony. My husband asked me why I read family problem novels when there is enough drama in our own family. And indeed, we can ask that question. One possible answer is that in reading about a family that is not like ours but has, it seems, problems far greater than our family, we can look with fresh eyes at our own life situations. Even though we may not find solutions to our family problems, we see how another family handles--or doesn't handle--the problems they face. We can look at our family members who are contributing to the drama and think, "Well, at least he/she's not...!"

Attenberg uses the interesting literary device of the omniscient voice that takes us into the past and the future of the main characters.  She moves us from our current point of view of the characters to a totally different point of view. Ah! we say. I get it! when we suddenly realize why Edie is obese. Oh, No! we say when we discover the things that will happen to Robin in the future. This skilled writing, while a bit cluttered, creates a picture of the characters that is rich and full, albeit a bit frustrating. One line in the novel probably sums up the dilemma of this type of character development: "Did we ever know these two people at all?" 

 Pain, hurt, disappointment, and guilt are all parts of life. Ultimately, it is how we deal with all these aspects that determine how we are going to live. The reviewer says: "Those who approach the world with an open heart receive love in return--even if it's the last thing they do."

The Middlesteins has been chosen for the Chicago Jewish Community's One Community/One Book for this year. Here is a link to the activities. I had to laugh that the kickoff event is a discussion of "Jews and Chinese Food."
Jamie Attenberg's website:

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