Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

January 20th, 2013  |  Published in January 2013

Book Review:  The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

~ Daniel Brown


Early in the new year, a young novelist’s new , or sometimes first, book is published and surprises me with its quality; last year, it was Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, a splendid look at an American man and a Bangladeshi woman who meet over the internet and eventually marry; Freudenberger’s narrator, the Bangladeshi, is an astute adaptor to her new life and culture and marriage, but when she goes back home to bring her parents to America, the lure of her old culture, family and old boyfriend make for some great writing, similar in plot and feel to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.

2013 brings us Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, a Jewish family saga of unusual sensitivity and insight.  The novel centers around the character of Edie, who has been overeating since she was a child, and becomes totally obese during her marriage.  One of Attenberg’s great strengths is to make Edie a fully-flushed and entirely human woman, and a high-achieving one at that.  Food , historically, is equated in Jewish families with love; I remember hearing , as a child from various grandmothers of friends of mine” have a banana.  No, have two bananas”.

The only child of immigrant parents, Edie is adored and overfed, but she is able to excel all the way through law school where she meets and marries an “appropriate” Jewish husband, a pharmacist in the making, a man she doesn’t really love, but whom she marries because she is supposed to, she likes his hair, and he is willing to forgo a first date and bring pizza with her to the hospital in which her father is dying:  marriages are built on more than that, and she already knows so.

Edie and her husband settle in the Chicago suburbs, have two children; her career seems to supercede his; they find other couple friends whose lives are classically suburban, on Fridays centering around the synagogue.  Their daughter is difficult and emotionally distant; their son, easygoing and pleasant, though his wife is a Jewish Princess/Tough Cookie in one.  Much of the book prepares the twin grandchildren for a b’nat mitzvah (one girl, one boy) at the as yet untried area Hilton, which includes a performance by the twins after the ceremony.  But Attenberg never satirizes or spoofs; her writing may make us chuckle but she has a great gift of creating empathetic characters across the boards.  Hysterical fights are more implied than described.

Edie’s husband leaves her at 60 and everyone, of course, gangs up on him: she has become diabetic and is having series of surgeries to save her life: she eats her way through all these life events, but although no one stops her eating, there’s an awareness of her finding comfort in food:  the novel is no joke about this symbiotic relationship between this obviously intelligent woman and her dependence on food for comfort and love.  An easy subject either to satirize or to victimize, Attenberg does neither:  by making Edie a full-blown subject, who also falls in love again,  she takes the subject of the second generation Jewish suburban life with all its typical trivialities and makes great fiction out of it; she has a way of grazing over detail that is hugely effective and makes each character appear less self-absorbed, less cardboard, than in so many contemporary novels of this ilk.  And I don’t remember reading a lot of Jewish family novels by women:  with both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as the virtual kingpins of the genre, Attenberg is courageous to get into this territory.

The Middlesteins is an oddly affecting novel, well written, light on adjectives and in tone, with a sweet grace underlying its intentions and its affects.  It’s a relief to see such a young woman write so well and with so much empathy.


—–Daniel Brown

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