Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

So let’s meet the Middlesteins, this year’s book club bait, 2013’s The Help, a well written novel with An Issue and a messy American family at its flabby core.

In Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins we swap race for that very modern problem, obesity, one that 300 plus pound Edie Middlestein’s (née Herzen) immigrant parents were never in a position to suffer from, but who inadvertently taught their only daughter that food is the world’s greatest comfort blanket.

We first meet Edie age five, demanding her laden-down mother carry her already heavy body up the stairs. When her stubbornness ends in  tears and bruised fingers, Edie’s tantrum is only stemmed by warm rye bread. Edie doesn’t get a lot more endearing as the years pass and the pounds creep on.

Fast forward fifty plus years and we’re in the present day where, on the eve of a second operation to fix her diabetes ravaged leg, Edie’s husband Richard leaves her. Their children, Benny and sulky Robin take their sides (Robin in her mum’s corner, Benny on the fence, his wife, Rachelle also on team Edie).  Everyone agrees that Edie is “hard to love, but worth loving”, but I felt sorry for sad old, emotionally vacuous Richard. Edie we’re told is larger than life, hilarious, warm, the life and soul, but we’re only told this, mostly we see the side of her that Richard fled from, the short-tempered, intolerant, impatient Edie. For such a big character, in every way, she lay rather flat on the page, her head seemingly full of food, her only concern the call of the fridge.

Jami Attenberg doesn’t try too hard to delve into the psychological reasons behind Edie’s chronic overeating, although throughout the novel, food is equated with love, as well as safety and sanctuary. But food is also a punishment, a false friend and, even on one occasion, a missile (a metaphor?!) We all have our vices, Attenberg seems to be saying, (booze, weed, sex, smoking being just a few of the Middlesteins’), the only problem is that Edie’s bad habit has set off a timebomb in her body and it’s tearing her family apart.

Each chapter is told in the third person from the point of view of each character. One particularly good chapter is narrated from the point of view of  three of the Middlesteins’ closest friends, the Cohns, Grodsteins and Weinmans that’s a wonderfully woven triple-double header, entwining six voices as one with great skill. The future is often reflected in the present day narrative, we know the characters’ fates before they do and are given the satisfaction of leaving them when the book ends and knowing where they end up.

The Middlesteins is a pacey, well written novel that combines lots of Great American Novel themes while maintaining a deft, light touch and gentle humour that make it such a page turner, if more of a – very tasty – oeuvre derves to bigger, meatier books.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Maria Semple was an LA-based script writer for shows including Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before moving to Seattle and swapping TV writing for novels. In her Women’s Prize For Fiction nominated novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette she brings the humour, the pace and the precision that makes great TV to this warm, funny, charming, clever book. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a joy to read from beginning to end, but for all its humour its far from a light and fluffy read, there’s a (often very funny) darkness that lies just beneath the surface of its fizzy narrative.

The AWOL Bernadette of the title was once a brilliant LA-based architect who fled her job and Los Angeles after a disagreement with an arrogant, smarmy yet wildly successful English TV producer (who could this be possibly based on?) and followed her Microsoft-employed husband Elgie to soggy Seattle, a city she hates with such passion that you know its wormed its way into her affections. In the years since their move, Bernadette has barely left their leaky, crumbling house, a former girls correction centre that was to be her Seattle project.

Much of the humour comes from Bernadette’s scathing view of Seattle. She hates the lakes, the mountains, the rain, the Big Brotherly-ness of Microsoft and the fustiness of the residence. She hates that it’s so near ‘nice’ Canada. One of the highlights is a chapter where Bernadette writes a vicious, hilarious letter to a former colleague pouring sharply funny scornballs all over the city that spawned grunge. But as much as she dislikes the city, she dislikes the idea of leaving it even more. When her daughter Bee, a straight A student, asks for a family trip to Antarctica as her end of year award, Bernadette is horrified. How can a woman who finds leaving the house a bumpy enough ride, navigate the turbulent waters of Drake’s Passage?

But in a bid to escape the mental hospital where her Microsoft absorbed husband Elgie believes is the only place for his wife who, he thinks, runs over school gate mother’s feet and causes mudslides by wilfully pulling out the soil-binding blackberry bushes, she throws herself at the mercy of the world’s most treacherous sea crossing. (To be fair to Elgie, his concerns over her mental health aren’t helped by him finding her asleep in a pharmacy. Oh, and then there’s the FBI investigation).

When Bernadette fails to return from her Antarctic adventure, everyone, expect tenacious Bee thinks she’s dead. The novel is the story of her search for her mother told through a series of letters, emails, police reports, even a (brilliant)  transcript of a TED talk on robots given by Elgie. This mish mash of what forms the evidence in Bee’s quest is linked by the fifteen-year-old’s eminently sensible but far from dull narrative. Semple somehow manages to make the complex and unlikely reality of Bee coming to have in her possession everything from letters from the blackberry bush exterminator to two-line postcards between once close friends sound completely plausible. I can’t imagine the kinds of knots she tied herself into writing it.

Bernadette is a rare fictional female. We know she wears big dark sunglasses even in the rain and tames her unruly, Seattle-rain ravaged hair in a jaunty headscarf. We know she’s 50. We know she doesn’t worry about her weight or wrinkles; she’s not in a tortured marriage nor having a messy affair; she’s not beautiful (or at least we’re not told she is), her effect on men is based purely on her architectural achievements and her uncompromising professional personality.

Your opinion on the novel will no doubt be dictated by how much you like Bernadette. I loved her; she was as refreshing as a Seattle shower, as funny and as flawed and a little bit mad as all the best people are. She was kinder than any of the church-going, PTA-attending women at the school gates who sneered at her out-of-town unorthodoxy and, although almost consigned to a mental hospital, saner than most others around her. There are a host of other characters, all borderline caricatures, but with the true comic writer’s touch of injecting them with enough humanity to make them less cartooning and more relatable. But ultimately, this is Bernadette’s journey, and one you’ll have a blast joining her on.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

The problem with taking your first dip into an acclaimed author’s back catalogue is that you may fish out that one dud that will stop you seeking out the rest of their oeuvre even if it has been lorded by broadsheet bigwigs and fellow writers.

Maggie O’Farrell has had much critical praise heaped on her since the publication of her debut After You’d Gone in 2000 for her novels that charter choppy relationships with a sinister undercurrent. She is that rarest of publishing beasts, a critically acclaimed author who shifts units. A star of a thousand bookclubs and broadsheet culture sections, O’Farrell’s work is widely thought of as accessible literary fiction; her books are page turners and brain churners.

Out of curiosity more than real longing, I have been wanting to read O’Farrell for a while, seduced by the real passion for her work that eluded from reviews. But where to start? With her latest, Instructions For A Heatwave that’s winning her more fans both in literary circles and on Amazon? Or her Costa novel award winning The Hand That First Held Mine?

Stumbling across her 2005 novel The Distance Between Us in a second hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye intervened in my indecisiveness. And well… it’s far from a dud, but it didn’t give me that rush of excitement you get from a novel that’s really great, that you fall in love with. O’Farrell’s cracking dialogue and pretty prose couldn’t compensate for the schisms in the storyline and the paper thin central characters and a plot that gets lost somewhere between Scotland and Hong Kong.

For the first two-thirds The Distance Between Us weaves an engaging, mysterious web of intrigue that crosses two continents and stretches from the top to the bottom – and even veers off to the east – of the UK.

But that web unravels in the home straight when the novel descends into a Richard Curtis-style frantic, and hugely implausible, love-hunt when the characters, and with it the plot, melt into a puddle of rom-com cliches.

The novel starts in London where Stella Gilmore is crossing the river on the way to work when the sight of a man walking towards her sparks a memory so terrifying that Stella immediately flees her job in TV production and, without telling her family (and I would say friends, but she doesn’t seem to have any), runs away to a remote part of Scotland. The only person who holds the key to her whereabouts is her chaotic sister Nina.

The relationship between the Scottish-Italian (the theme of being an outsider is a strong one throughout The Distance Between Us) sisters is an interesting one, and ripe for more attention. They share an uncommonly sisterly, almost twin-like bond, which, we learn, was fused in childhood after Nina suffered a near fatal brain virus that leaves her vulnerable, fragile and so behind in her studies that she must drop back to the same year as the younger Stella. Barely in double figures herself, Stella was forced to become her sister’s bodyguard, a role she took so seriously that the reverberations are still being felt today.

But, back to the beginning. While Stella is freaking out about a red-headed man lumbering towards her through a Thames-mist, Jake Kildoune is in Hong Kong fighting for survival in a horrific crowd crush while out celebrating Chinese New Year. He escapes physically unscathed, but Mel, his girlfriend of a few months is lying in hospital and not expected to last the night. Her only wish before she dies is to marry the man she barely knows. Because, dying single is, like, totally every woman’s worst nightmare, right? Jake duly puts a ring on it and…

Fast forward a few months and we’re in Norfolk where Jake and his – surprise! – very much alive wife are living with her red-trouser wearing, golf-playing, flower-arranging (maybe) parents. Jake is, understandably, a little miffed. But at least he has his Scottish father – who he never knew – to track down so that’ll get him out of the house for a few weeks. And guess, where he ends up…? Yes, the same remote hotel as Stella. And naturally Stella’s alluring green eyes prove a far better prospect that Mel’s pleading ones…

Despite this being a love story, the tale of Jake and Stella’s lust across continents is the least interesting thing about the novel – this would have been a far better book if it hadn’t been for their romance-by-numbers. There’s the suffocating, almost sinister closeness of the sisters; that sense of being an outsider; the restlessness of people who never feel they belong anywhere; Stella’s lurking dark secret (all very Donna Tartt) . I loved the Hong Kong scenes; O’Farrell lived there for a while and her vivid descriptions evoked the suffocating heat, the exotic smell of barbeque pork, wet pavements, metal and incense. But as characters, Stella and Jake are as flat as these Hong Kong scenes are 3D and their love affair is the usual will-they-won’t-they-whoops-a misunderstanding!-aw-he’s-tracked-her-down-and-proposed-oh!-she’s-said-no storyline that I’ve read and seen in films/TV so many times that despite O’Farrell’s skill as a writer, I lost interest towards the end.

O’Farrell’s appeal is obvious: I gobbled this up in a weekend and perhaps my frustration with the two central characters and their sappy ending was partly due to my immersion in what was, for the most part, an absorbing tale laced with ominous undertones, O’Farrell sucking you in with her dark arts. This isn’t the end for O’Farrell and me, but there will be a pause before I pick up another one of her novels (I’m rather tempted by The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

by Suzanne Elliott 

Theatre review: Chimerica, Harold Pinter Theatre

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Thousands of miles away from its epicentre, in a sitting room in Surrey, the events of Tiananmen Square would, if not change my life, certainly set me off on a path I’m still ambling along haphazardly today. It was while watching Kate Adie standing amongst protesters and rumbling tanks calming relaying the tumultuous events into people’s living rooms across the UK that inspired me to become a journalist, or, more specifically, a war correspondent.

Fourteen years later my journalism career has been far less dramatic and impressive than Adie’s bullet-strewn route, these days the most dangerous thing I have to navigate are the rails of expensive clothes as I carry my soup on my way from the office kitchen to my desk.

The events of June 1989 obviously changed far more than the career path of a 12 year-old girl in the Home Counties. It changed families’ lives overnight as hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters were shot dead by the People’s Army. It changed China’s future, as it shrugged off its economic isolation and began its journey to world domination, biting at the heels of the mighty USA in a bid to succeed it as the world’s next superpower.

This tug-of-war between East and West forms the backbone of Chimerica (it took me ages to get the title, duh), examining both personal and political relationships as the actions shifts, and sometimes overlaps, between Beijing and New York, swinging between 1989 and the present day.

The play opens on 3 June 1989 when ambitious young American photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) is gifted a bird’s eye view of the moment Wang Weilin – widely believed to be his name – stepped in front of a tank as it trundled into Tiananmen Square to break up what had been a peaceful seven week protest. Joe made his name from the photograph (much like the real photographer Jeff Widener did), and flies back fourteen years later on another assignment to China where he is reunited with his old friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). On the flight he meets Tess (Claudie Blakley), a funny, straight talking British woman who works in analysing the Chinese consumer for Western businesses desperate for a share of the spending power of 1.2 billion Chinese.

Later, Joe and Zhang are drinking beer in the Chinese man’s tiny Beijing apartment. The two men rake over the still simmering coals of that day that changed both their lives for ever (Zhang’s wife was amongst the dead) and Zhang drops a bombshell – Tank Man wasn’t whisked off and shot as presumed, but is still alive. Joe, hungry for a story and with a genuine, if misguided, desire to find the truth, sets out to discover Tank Man’s whereabouts and in the process sparks the smouldering fire that will eventually rage out of his control and have far reaching consequences from Beijing to Queens.

Chimerica has been a huge hit, its success propelling it from the Almeida Theatre to the West End where, after a sell-out season, is due to end its run in a couple of weeks. The success of Lucy Kirkwood’s play isn’t surprising, it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that combines so much of what makes theatre great with a real contemporary, almost filmic, quality that elevates it beyond just another West End smash. For all its big themes and comments on government corruption and big business cover-ups Chimerica is funny – proper belly laugh funny too, not polite theatre-chuckling – heart-warming, heart-breaking, intelligent and genuine. The characters talk like real people; no one has one of those wine-glass throwing, finger pointing hysterical ephemeral arguments where no one can remember what the point was. The plot is riveting, proper edge-of-the-seat stuff, and complex in a way you rarely get on stage and it canters along without ever feeling rushed. I liked that Tess was recognisably English, not because she liked scones and tea, but because she said things like ‘I skipped down the road like some cunt in a musical’, quoted Spinal Tap and drank whiskey because she liked it not because she had A Drink Problem. Joe was a photojournalist who lived for the story, destroying everything in his path in search for the truth, but who wasn’t a villain, just a flawed man whose ambition was bigger than him. As we come to understand during Chimerica, heroes don’t always act heroically.

As in life there is no neat ending. The final scenes were hugely moving without being mawkish and Tess’s swelling belly gave us a tiny glimmer of hope for the future, even if this future is in a world where governments can control the weather and where the truth will always lose out to money and power.

by Suzanne Elliott