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