Friday, May 24, 2013

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

Richard Middlestein, a pharmacist in the northwestern Chicago suburbs, leaves his morbidly obese wife Edie as she is in the midst of a health crisis. Their children Benny and Robin are horrified at their father's heartlessness and sick with worry about their mother's health. Meanwhile, Benny's wife Rachelle becomes obsessed with Edie's eating, following her around throughout the day to see how much she is consuming and responding by feeding Benny and their children, Josh and Emily, only vegetables for dinner.

Clearly, this is a novel about family dysfunction and troubled eating. While the premise--middle-aged husband leaves wife when she becomes fat and ill--would suggest that most readers (perhaps especially female readers) would empathize with Edie, she is a hard character to care about. Despite the fact that chapters told from Edie's perspective are headed with her weight (e.g., "Edie, 62 Pounds" or "Edie, 332 Pounds"), we get very little insight into why food became her obsession, her place to hide. I found myself most interested in the character of Benny, who is trying to negotiate the space between his parents, dealing with his irrational sister and wife, and facing the teen years with a daughter who at 12 is already in full rebellion mode. Oh, yes, and going bald. While hardly perfect (he smokes a joint every night after the kids go to bed), he feels real and relatable.

Attenberg uses shifting narrators, including most of the members of the family (grandson Josh never gets a chapter) and even a first-person plural chapter from four couples who were friends of the Middlesteins from synagogue. Although I often like books with multiple narrators because they provide different perspectives on the same events, I felt Attenberg's use of the technique kept the reader from understanding any of the characters in depth. As a reader to whom character is important, I was actually taken aback by Attenberg's portrayal of the women in the story. Yes, women can be abrasive, irrational, and damaged in a variety of ways, often quite interesting and instructive ways. But all of the adult women in this book are presented in a negative and stereotyped way that verged on offensive.

Attenberg also used a fairly unusual "flash forward" technique, suddenly telling the reader in the midst of a chapter set in the present that, for example, Richard would keep his last pharmacy open until he died, even though he had no customers. Although she manages to give us a bit of welcome hope with respect to Emily's future life, in general the glimpses into the future add little.

Obviously, I did not like this book much and would not recommend it as either an entertaining read or a meaningful exploration of dysfunctional families and problematic relationships with food. I found it to be neither.

Favorite passage
He didn't get her, he knew that much. He didn't know why he needed to get her anyway. His father had never gotten him. Why did people need to be gotten so much?   [Richard reflecting on his relationship with his daughter]

His daughter's newfound adolescent moodiness, those dark, twisted, frustrated glances she shot him whenever he opened his mouth, as if an Oh, my God, Dad were just hovering in the air between them, waiting to be splattered up against him, a condescending pie in the face. [Benny reflecting on his relationship with his daughter]

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