Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This isn't just about food

One of the main characters in Jami Attenberg's novel, The Middlesteins, is obsessed about food, lots and lots of food. But its effect on the reader is a 180. After reading this novel, I felt a lack of craving for Big Macs, Chinese take-out, and baby back ribs. Yes, I've been affected by The Middlesteins, and in a good way.

The Middlesteins may be a short novel, but it certainly is meaty on the issues of family, our roles in it, marriage, the importance of coping with change, and the consequences of failing to do so. We all know that family is important, and yet our actions, our attitude, toward our family seem to point otherwise.

Attenberg's novel is made up of the narratives of the Middlestein family. There's Edie Middlestein, the 60-year-old retired lawyer who has been abandoned by her husband. Edie's problem is that she can't stop eating, even though she's now more than 300 pounds and is diabetic. Richard, her husband of more than 30 years, is now living in an apartment with his girlfriend. Apparently, Richard has long been contemplating leaving Edie, which was finally triggered by Edie's latest diabetic surgery.

Then there are their children. Robin, their daughter who is a schoolteacher, naturally hates her father for leaving. Benny, who has now a family of his own, is married to Rachelle, who also gets her own narrative in the novel. Rachelle is your Stepford wife: is a perfectionist, counts calories in her family's meals, and is determined to "save" Edie's life. It's a futile attempt though, as Edie just consumes all the food that she can possibly can up to the end.

Food is central in the story of The Middlesteins. When Edie's children were growing up, she gave them all the food that they can afford, as if thinking that "food was made of love. . . and they could never deny themselves a bit of anything they desired." Robin was a fat kid who decides that she's had enough of all the eating during her teenage years. Now an adult, Robin may be thin, but she has all this pent-up anger toward her father and probably just a slight bitterness that her career didn't actually become how she thought it would.

Throughout the novel, it's as if Edie has resigned herself to the fact that all she has in her life, apart from her kids and grandchildren, is her love of eating. Attenberg even describes the food, junk food and otherwise, with much detail. We know that all this eating will eventually lead to her death, but we're still reading, anxiously awaiting how the final events will play out.

I love The Middlesteins. It allowed me a glimpse of contemporary family life, albeit the family is Jewish and American. I enjoyed reading the narratives of each of the characters. I'm amazed how the author has created distinct voices for each. I just felt sorry for Edie and I somehow sympathized with Richard. And Rachelle's obsessive compulsiveness is a gas.

It's no wonder why The Middlesteins was chosen as a best book of the month by Amazon and also by The Millions. The novel is just so wonderful that you wish it were longer. It's heartbreaking and smart. The term "tragicomedy" doesn't cut it in describing this beautiful novel.

Read this book if:
  1. Food is your obsession.
  2. You know that every family is weird in its own way.
  3. You love reading personal narratives.


Kaz said...

Sounds like one for my TBR pile...

Peter S. said...

It should be, Kaz!