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The Middlesteins: A Novel Hardcover – October 23, 2012

3.5 out of 5 stars 418 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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


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

"Deeply satisfying. . . . A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life."―Kirkus Reviews (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

"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

"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)

"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

"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'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

"Deftly comedic and acutely sensitive, Jami Attenberg confronts our profound hunger for meaning and love in The Middlesteins.... [This book] generates disturbing, hilarious and tender revelations."―Donna Seaman, Kansas City Star Tribune

"A smart novel that tackles big issues."―Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)

"Attenberg writes with all the humor and vigor of Philip Roth but with the warmth and heart of Anne Tyler. The energy comes from Attenberg's exuberant prose, which makes this novel a joy to read.... The Middlesteins is literature at its finest, asking the tough, unanswerable questions about our modern life."―Richmond Times-Dispatch

"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

"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

"Jami Attenberg has written a brilliant novel in The Middlesteins, as blazing, ferocious, and great-hearted as anything I've read. For anyone who has ever known heartbreak, the terrible love of a family, or a passion so deep you think it'll kill you, The Middlesteins will blow you away."―Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of The Monsters of Templeton

"I couldn't help absolutely devouring The Middlesteins. This smorgasbord of a book about food, family, love, sex, and loss is like the Jewish The Corrections, yet menschier and with a heart--and it's hilarious!"―Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

"The Middlesteins is a truly original American novel, at once topical and universally timeless. Jami Attenberg has created a Midwestern Jewish family who are quintessentially familiar but fiercely, mordantly idiosyncratic. This novel will make you laugh, cry, cringe in recognition, and crave lamb-cumin noodles. This is a stunningly wonderful book."―Kate Christensen, author of The Astral and The Great Man

"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

"The Middlesteins, the novel, is great literature: in lucid and lustrous prose, Jami Attenberg tells a flawlessly paced, profound story that is equally intimate and universal. And the Middlesteins, the family, are great company: warm, tragic, funny and so deeply, complexly, entirely human that I could almost swear I grew up down the street from them. I read Attenberg's book as voraciously as Edie Middlestein downs her surreptitious feasts, and now I'm insatiable for more from this brilliant author."―Stefan Merrill Block, author of The Storm at the Door and The Story of Forgetting

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 273 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1st edition (October 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1455507210
  • ISBN-13: 978-1455507214
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (418 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #731,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In "The Middlesteins," Jami Attenberg presents a stinging portrayal of a dysfunctional family living in Chicago. As a young girl, Edie Herzen eats compulsively; her mother is an enabler who encourages her daughter's mindless consumption of calorie-laden foods. Although Edie has a sharp mind, she is the prisoner of a gigantic appetite that can never be satiated. Later, she will become a lawyer who practices her profession for more than three decades. She and her husband, Richard Middlestein, have two children, Benny and Robin. By the time Benny is married with two kids of his own, Edie has an advanced case of diabetes complicated by arterial disease in her legs. She will be so morbidly obese that her doctors order her to lose weight or die.

Readers who glance at the bright yellow cover may expect a light-hearted Jewish comedy of manners; they will be sorely disappointed. "The Middlesteins" is remorseless in its exploration of all that can go wrong between husbands and wives as well as parents and children. Edie and Richard have not communicated for a long time; they are distant both physically and emotionally. After close to forty years of marriage, Richard walks out in disgust. He leaves his ailing wife to cope with her daunting medical problems alone.

Attenberg is a talented writer whose well-crafted prose, sharp dialogue, and unusual plot hold our interest. However, reading this novel is a bit like watching a six-car pileup on the Long Island Expressway. We are open-mouthed in horrified fascination, wondering how such a catastrophic event could have occurred. In "The Middlesteins," most of the characters have made a hash of their lives, and none of the protagonists is particularly appealing.
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Format: Hardcover
I was captivated by The Middlesteins: A Novel. It had me from the first page and didn't let me go until the end.

It is about self-destruction, self-centeredness, and hope. The characters all try to do what they do best but, unfortunately, despite their best efforts, they fail.

Edie has been a compulsive eater since childhood. She is now a grown women, probably in her fifties and she is morbidly obese, weighing 332 pounds. Her husband of 30+ years has walked out on her and she has developed diabetes and concurrent problems with her legs that require surgery. Her doctor has told her that if she continues on the course she is on she will die. She had been a successful lawyer but because of her weight, her colleagues buy her out and she no longer works. She had once been a strong woman with intensity. She is now intense but weak. All her energy goes into food and eating and this is killing her.

Her two children, Benny and Robin, don't know what to do. Benny is passive and Robin is beside herself with worry. Benny's wife, Rachelle, an obsessive compulsive person and very assertive, puts Edie on a regimen meant for her to lose weight and be healthier. She has Edie walking a mile a day and tries to get her to eat healthier food. In fact, in Rachelle's own home she has her own family on a health regimen that is more like a starvation diet - hardly anything but greens are served for meals. Her own family is starving.

Edie's ex-husband, Richard, is determined to find a girlfriend and searches the Jewish sites on the internet daily. He is the owner of a pharmacy that is failing.
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8 Comments 30 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Jami Attenberg's new novel, "The Middlesteins", has already garnered so many well-written and perceptive reviews that I don't think I can add much. But I did want to give it five stars and keep the rating up. Attenberg's book is a look, in part, at what makes people eat. Filling up the emptiness inside with massive amounts of food is one reason, but so is the thought of food as a tool of control over others.

The Middlesteins, parents Richard and Edie, children Robin and Benny, and grandchildren Emily and Josh, live in Chicago and its northwest suburbs. Various people are in the Middlestein universe but Edie is the glue that holds the family together. She has a larger-than-life personality as well as a voracious appetite for food. After 40 years of marriage and with many physical ailments that can be traced directly to her over eating, her husband Richard admits he cannot live with her anymore and leaves her. The separation tears apart a family already made up of fragile personal alliances. Their children both understand their father's position in an impersonal way, but can't countenance the decision on a personal level. The year of Richard and Edie's separation also has many other pivotal events, like the twins' bat and bar mitzvah, and Robin moving from friendship to romance with her friend, Daniel.

What makes the Middlestein family "tick" can be directly traced to Edie's over eating. Everyone is consumed by the food Edie consumes, and fat or thin, weight is the on-going issue in the family. Eating at Edie's favorite Chinese restaurant by members of her family can be viewed by the sizes of the portions consumed.

Jami Attenberg is an excellent writer and does what few novelists do and that is they sort of "telegraph" future plot points in advance.
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