The Middlesteins

  • By Jami Attenberg
  • Grand Central
  • 272 pp.

A family that masks its pain with food, drugs, and sex gets a wake-up call about taking each other for granted.

Humor and pain are sharp and inseparable in Jami Attenberg’s new novel, The Middlesteins, a darkly comic saga of a middle-class Jewish family in suburban Chicago.

Food is love and love is food, or so matriarch Edie Middlestein was raised to believe. She’s middle-aged, obese and dangerously ill, a six-foot, 300-plus-pound “massive egg under a rotating array of silk shimmering housedresses,” according to her daughter-in-law, Rachelle; but her lifelong obsession with food shows no sign of waning.

Edie’s squirm-inducing dining habits would be easy to mock, but Attenberg conveys the emotions behind them with sensitivity and precision, as when Edie waxes poetic about the smell of McDonald’s, finding “so much hope in that grilled, salty, sweet, meaty air.”

Scratch the surface, and this story goes far deeper than a mere light romp in the dysfunctional family annals. Edie’s extended family struggles to deal with her self-destructive lifestyle, though she has no desire to change. In chapters that double forward and back and then intertwine, each Middlestein gradually reveals his or her own fears, disappointments and obsessions — but, notably, almost never do they reveal these to each other. The most important things are almost never said aloud, and the characters’ unwillingness to say what they mean leads to misunderstandings and even lifelong scars. The Middlesteins’ common bond is their struggle to avoid reality, whether through booze, drugs, food, or sex.

For Robin, Edie’s hard-drinking adult daughter, her mother’s failing health is “real life kicking her in the face, and she wanted nothing to do with it.”

It takes outsiders to persuade the Middlesteins to open their eyes. “We should talk about this first,” says Robin’s boyfriend Daniel, as their relationship moves from friendship to sex. “This is absolutely the thing we should not talk about,” Robin replies.

Benny, Robin’s brother, sees a doctor for his mysteriously receding hairline and is told to seek therapy. The doctor clearly didn’t know “how his family operated,” thinks Benny. “Therapy was for people who had an interest in communication.”

Attenberg has an ear for the humor that resides in suffering; her comic timing is stellar, the voices familiar and angst-ridden. We learn that Robin and Benny’s father, Richard, now estranged from Edie, “was not an out-of-the-box thinker. He was completely in the box. (What was so wrong with the box? … )” Leaving his wife after 40 years of marriage, “he had hurtled himself out there … out of the goddamn box.”

Benny’s wife, Rachelle, is a foil to Edie — thin, tightly wound and a policewoman of food consumption. She’s compared with a “small, precious, expensive dog.” Having served a dinner so healthy no one else wants to eat it, Rachelle consumes it with apparent relish, chewing “as if she were savoring every vitamin.”

Four couples, longtime friends of Edie and Richard, narrate a tour de force chapter in the collective voice, explaining, “We were at the age where we had almost been forgotten but were not quite old enough to be heralded for still being alive.”

The Middlesteins specialize in missed connections and missed opportunities. Attenberg flashes forward with liberal frequency to reveal the full impact of those misses, projecting across the years to provide a painful glimpse of what lies ahead. In mid-scene, we peer into a crystal ball and suddenly learn when someone will die. The technique mirrors the way families operate — nothing is ever JUST about what’s happening at that moment. Everything in the present carries the weight of the past as well as the promise or threat of the future. In less capable hands, the flash-forward technique results in a jarring manipulation of the reader’s emotions, but Attenberg applies a deft hand to these moments that defy chronology to create their own tension and a rich psychological and emotional family portrait. This is the most effective use of flash-forward I’ve seen in years.

The characters’ inner thoughts are sometimes expressed in an accumulation of phrases that gather meaning and momentum, but there are places where the point is made for a beat too long, and a single line would have more power. And a lengthy family history of a Chinese restaurant owner who overfeeds Edie in his devotion seems an unnecessary digression from the rest of the story. But these are minor quibbles in a book that’s funny, involving, and far more complex than it first lets on.

When family members are either unwilling or unable to understand each other, what keeps them together? If not food, if not love — what then? You might sometimes want to shake these characters; you might also want to reassure them, because in those rare moments when they truly see each other, when they finally make an effort, progress is possible. Just as Richard has decided that “whatever was left for him to feel was for him to experience alone,” he stumbles across someone who can, on some level, share that experience, either because of or in spite of the one thing they know they have in common: They are family.

Paula Whyman, (, writes fiction and humor. Her work has been supported by grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, and Yaddo. Her short fiction has appeared recently in the Gettysburg Review and Gargoyle.

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