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The Middlesteins: A Novel Paperback – June 4, 2013
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012: At five years old, Edie already tipped 62 pounds. She’d clearly “surpassed luscious,” but how could her lioness of a mother--or her father, who’d starved all the way from Ukraine to Chicago, and so also felt “carnal, primal, about food”--resist feeding her? They all believed that “food was made of love … and they could never deny themselves a bit of anything they desired.” So Edie indulged for decades, expanding finally to 350 pounds, discovering (when Richard, her husband of 30 years, gave up trying to stop her and moved out) that food is “a wonderful place to hide.” Her adult children’s extravagant worry--mounting with each diabetic surgery and undistracted by her grandchildren’s choreographed, chocolate fountained b’nai mitzvah preparations--do nothing to dampen Edie’s enthusiasm to consume, and Attenberg describes Edie’s meals with a sensual relish that could verge on repulsive if it didn’t so readily trigger our own desires. The same story told with less compassionate humor could have easily been distasteful, but The Middlesteins has a light, tragicomic touch that lends it unexpectedly poignant heft. –Mari Malcolm --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
Praise for THE MIDDLESTEINS:
"THE MIDDLESTEINS had me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."―Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom
"The Middlesteins is a tender, sad and funny look at a family and their mother. In fact, it's so readable, it's practically edible."―Meg Wolitzer, NPR All Things Considered
"A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life."―Kirkus (Starred Review)
"Expansive heart and sly wit... Throughout this poignant novel, the characters wrestle with two defining questions: What do we owe each other after a life together? What do we owe ourselves?"―Abbe Wright, O Magazine
"With a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, [Attenberg] renders this family's ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting... Attenberg is superb at mocking the cliches of middle-class life by giving them the slightest turn to make people suddenly real and wholly sympathetic."―Ron Charles, Washington Post
"[An] irresistible family portrait with piquant social commentary. Kinetic with hilarity and anguish, romance and fury, Attenberg's rapidly consumed yet nourishing novel anatomizes our insatiable hunger for love, meaning, and hope."―Donna Seaman, Booklist (Starred Review)
"The most authentic, endearing fictional portrait of a family in recent memory. . . There is no page of this novel without compassion, empathy, humor and restraint."―Carmela Ciuraru, Dallas Morning News
"Attenberg finds ample comic moments in this wry tale about an unraveling marriage. She has a great ear for dialog, and the novel is perfectly paced. . . . [She] seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy in this warm and engaging family saga of love and loss."―Library Journal
"[Attenberg's] characters' thoughts-Richard and Benny in particular-seem utterly real, and her wry, observational humor often hits sideways rather than head-on. . . [A] wonderfully messy and layered family portrait."―Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Jami Attenberg's comic-tragic portrait of The Middlesteins, a quirky midwestern Jewish family collapsing under burdens of betrayal, desire, and obesity, is delish."―Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
"[A] remarkable feat.... Clear-eyed funny and truthful and deeply moving, especially in the killer-punch of its ending... Refined, economical and beautifully crafted."―Stefan Fleischer, The Buffalo News
"Hugely enjoyable . . . Attenberg has the Tolstoyan gift for creating life on the page. Sometimes all she needs to capture a soul is a couple of sentences. But the pleasure she takes in these people goes beyond compassion . . . When Attenberg shows us the world through their eyes, they're not just interesting and sympathetic; they're a treat to be with. I didn't want a single one of their narratives to end. . . . The book isn't merely a delight to read: it lifts you up."―Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
"Vibrant . . . Thanks to Attenberg's sure-handed prose, this agile narrative swiftly moves around in time and perspectives . . . Attenberg evokes memorable moments of authentic sadness and tenderness while thoughtfully and comically examining the question of what we inherit from our families. In the case of the Middlesteins, it is many things, including their sometimes-enduring love for each other."―S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle
"This gem of a book is swift, moving and brutally honest, but it has as family-centric moral at its heart: Without family, we are nothing."―Susannah Cahalan, New York Post
"Funny, compassionate tragicomedy...notable for the nimble way it combines humor and pathos. Attenberg can be wry and sharply funny, but there's a tenderness in her portrayal of her outsized main character and her family."―Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
"A smart novel that tackles big issues."―Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)
"The Middlesteins is a juicy, delicious, dark smorgasbörd of a novel."―Royal Young, Interview Magazine
"Blazing, ferocious, and great-hearted. . . . THE MIDDLESTEINS will blow you away."―Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia
"Jami Attenberg has a gift for making you sympathize with each and every one of her characters. The result is a rich family portrait that's sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and gripping all the way through. The Middlesteins are every bit as complex and contradictory as your family, or mine. I'm still thinking about them long after I turned the final page."―J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Commencement and Maine
"Jami Attenberg writes with startling honesty and haunting compassion about characters caught between desire and obligation. Blunt and beautifully written, THE MIDDLESTEINS peels back the layers of one family's struggle to hold together even as its members fall apart, examining the commitments and betrayals, the guilt and grievances, the wounds and recoveries. Told with great hope and humor, this is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance, the roles we yearn to escape, and the bonds that prove unbreakable. It's a wonderful book."―Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals
Top customer reviews
Even though the children are grown they are affected by the breakup. Benny is married himself with two children. He married Rachelle, the kind of woman who lives to control her world and make everything perfect. She is furious at Richard and determined that she can turn Edie's eating problem around by helping her make better eating choices and exercise. She cuts Richard off entirely from their family. Robin is a teacher but not really doing well. She drinks too much and has never had a lasting relationship. She has just met someone new and wonders if it could work out.
Edie is furious. She hasn't loved Richard for years and her constant picking and nagging is as much a factor as her obesity. She isn't sure why she eats so much but at the end of the day is determined to live her life as she wants, even if that means eating everything in sight. Her success as a lawyer seems diametrically opposed to her lack of control in her personal life.
Attenberg has written a saga of a family that has dissolved. Everyone seems surprised when older couples divorce but once the children are grown, why would someone stay if there is no joy in their daily life? She explores the role of personal responsibility, of what parents owe their children and children owe their parents and whether love can be found even as we age. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in family relationships.
The passion is gone and they have been drifting apart for years. Edie, who has spent her whole life battling a weight problem, has finally started to experience serious health issues due to her obesity. Richard has met another woman who makes him feel alive and he decides to ask Edie for a divorce, only sending Edie deeper into her downward spiral.
Everyone is worried about Edie and the whole family pitches in to help her lose the weight. As Edie's problems are finally out in the open, the family starts to discover the depth of its own dysfunction, forcing all of the characters to face their personal issues.
Jami Attenberg writes a strong family drama, filled with heartbreak and fears. The biggest theme is mortality, as the family faces the serious reality of Edie dying from her obesity. It was so frustrating to witness Edie's stubbornness with her food issues. Having recently dealt with family members and their own stubbornness over their addictions, this drove me nuts to read. I wanted to reach through the pages and shake Edie.
It would seem easy to label The Middlesteins as a book about the obesity epidemic, but that's not what Attenberg has done. Attenberg has not written a story based on a hot button social issue, she has written about a family, who happens to be dealing with an obese mother. The issue doesn't trump the characters. She doesn't excuse or condone Edie's obesity, it simply is a part of her life, a life that Attenberg examines from various angles.
I came to love the Middlestein family, their warts and all. Attenberg writes them honestly and they feel very real. This story has a slice-of-life tone that I tend to favor in literature. It also has enough scandal to keep it entertaining.
I liked Attenbergs style and I look forward to reading her other novels very soon.
Like my review? Check out my blog!
But the characters in this book are cardboard cutouts. I certainly don't feel like I got to know the main character, Edie. Okay, she drowns her sorrows in food, but she's also a lawyer, mother, lover and friend--why don't I feel like I know her? Really know her. And her husband appears to be a stand in for Everyman who gets a new lease on life through leaving his wife for a new model.
Edie's new love, an elderly Chinese widower, is a welcome plot complication. But again, who is he other than a plot device for the Jewish characters? All surface.
I gave this book 4 stars, however, because I did cry at the end, and read it to the end, and cared about the characters. I wanted to see what happened to them, if they ever found each other. Attenberg's portrayal of people's diverse coping mechanisms (food, work, pot, alcohol) felt spot-on to me. I look forward to reading more of her work. The weight issues felt like an overly-easy device by the end. One more draft and they could have receded a bit.. .