The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

review published on November 5, 2013. Reviewed by Kate Westrich

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

“And there he was, in a suit (it was his only one, but she didn’t know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn’t know that yet)…”

As soon as I read that line in The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, I kept returning to it. It’s such a smartly said scathing comment. And really, it summarizes so much of what happens in the novel.

Although a very nice story, it was difficult for me not to think about The Middlesteins being about miserable people in a miserable existence. Attenburg does well by not passing judgment on any of her characters, but neither does she offer much by which to have sympathy for them. Readers are left to make their own assessments of each character. And there’s plenty by which to make those evaluations.

Edie is the matriarch of the Middlestein family, dominating the lives of her husband and children. Food is what has power over her. Attenburg illustrates her wildly unhealthy relationship with food by a back-to-back-to-back trip to three fast food restaurants followed by stop at a Chinese food restaurant. Throughout The Middlesteins we read of Edie’s relationship with food and how it affects not only her ballooning weight, but also the people who love her.

Richard, the man in the suit in the quote above, begins his married life owning and running three pharmacies, thanks to money from his wife – a fact she doesn’t forget. Early on in the novel he leaves Edie and has to manage the reactions his children and their families. He also experiences what it’s like to reenter the dating world as an older man and encounter people who don’t rule with an iron fist like Edie.

Edie and Richard’s two children are Benny and Robin. Benny is clearly affected by his mother. He has married an equally strong woman and is open with his own coping techniques. Robin tried to flee her family, even if in the same town. While she connects with her mother in small moments, and her father in even smaller ones, she keeps her distance.

The Middlestein family offers fodder for a great analysis of psychologically unhealthy family dynamics. It illustrates America’s unhealthy relationship with food. It demonstrates the importance society places on appearances. Attenburg is reserved in how she handles this, though. She offers up the information. She lays everything out like a buffet but lets readers serve themselves. The potential is there for a quick satisfying read when people take in the story of the Middlestein family and, maybe, left to wonder at their misery.

Or there is room for a back-to-back-to-back series of analysis of the characters and their neurosis, and what they represent of society as a whole.


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