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The Middlesteins: A Novel Hardcover – October 23, 2012
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The Amazon Book Review
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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
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
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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.. .
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!
Little Edie Herzen is not little at all. And never has been.
The novel encompasses the life of Edie, or nearly so. She goes to law school and marries Richard who will over the course of his working years start up three pharmacies in the Chicago suburbs, and there Edie and Richard will raise two children, Benny and Robin, who in turn will grow into adulthood. Robin will become a drunk and a school teacher--I have been a school teacher all my adult life and realize that there might have been some advantages to having become a drunk along the way as well. Benny is successful in business, marries Rachelle--a shot gun wedding in a synagogue--and they have twins, Emily and Joshua. And at the present time the twins are busy getting ready for their b'nai mitzvah, meaning mostly getting their dance steps down since apparently they don't have to learn much Hebrew. Much nicer to be a Reform Jew, right?
I absolutely love Jewish writers. I do. And Jami Attenberg has now been added to my list, most especially Jewish writers who just let their Jewishness seep into everything on all the pages.
Edie has grown very large, now retired--an attorney forced out by the offspring of the firm's founders, but financially well rewarded--and Richard is down to one pharmacy having made the decision not to ever upgrade. Oy vey! Oh, yes, and Richard has grown tired of Edie, has in fact left her and is actively seeking women on line. Meanwhile Edie's daughter-in-law has taken up Edie as her crusade, to get Edie to diet, to become healthy. But Edie is angry--and Edie wants to eat and eat and...
But there is a new man in Edie's life, a man who sort of owns a Chinese restaurant--he is, of course, not Chinese--and prepares food Edie loves.
There is a wonderful chapter about a seder. A house filled with Jews is just ripe for humor. But then there is a very odd and wonderful chapter, "Seating Chart," when the narration turns from third person to a collective first person--we--a table, specifically the Waltz Table--of Jews observing what is going on at the b'nai mitzvah party. Oh my...
Jami Attenberg has a wonderful style, filled with sentence detours. So if you are one of those old-fashioned readers who doesn't like new-fashioned writing with all its detours--its movement this way, its movement that, its digressions and asides (Can you tell I am doing that here? Yes? No?)--you may find this annoying. But my suggestion is to try it because, like me, I think you will grow to like it.