“The Middlesteins” is the story of a dangerously overweight woman and the relatives who are trying, in various ineffectual ways, to save her life when “everything about her was collapsing.” There are sweet sentimental temptations all over a plot like this, but Attenberg writes with restraint and just a dash of bitterness. The result is a story that repeatedly tosses off little bursts of wisdom that catch you off guard.
The nimble structure of this novel is just one of the elements that keep it engaging. A brief introductory chapter shows us “little” Edie when she was 5 and already weighed 62 pounds. Her mother coddled her and soothed her with food, setting the table for a lifetime of confusion between affection and eating. Then Attenberg jumps ahead half a century: Edie is a retired lawyer in Chicago, a 300-pound mother of two and a diabetic facing a second round of surgery on her legs. After decades of bickering, her husband, Richard, has walked out, shocking his family more than he anticipated. “The Middlesteins” is a novel about people who keep loving even when they can’t stand to look at each other.
Despite that weighty material, the rest of this trim novel jumps around nimbly, chapter by chapter, catching up on the family at difficult times — and on Edie at different weights. Almost any reason is good enough for her to eat, day or night, and the super-sized meals follow one after another in comically grotesque detail. Lying in bed the night before her surgery, she can’t stop thinking about a “value-size package of kettle-baked sea salt potato chips and a plastic tub of deli onion dip . . . which were sitting downstairs in her kitchen, waiting for her like two friends who had come over for coffee and a little chitchat.”
Attenberg’s descriptions of food and desire are both savory and sad: “She ate on behalf of Golda, recovering from cancer. She ate in tribute to Israel. She ate because she loved to eat. She knew she loved to eat, that her heart and soul felt full when she felt full.” Later, her life was “spent at this kitchen table, alternating between eating and grinding all the joy out of her memories.”
Attenberg is particularly attuned to Edie’s adult daughter, Robin, a young history teacher who feels responsible for her mother, even while dreading her suffocating presence. A carefully drawn study in conflicted emotions, Robin is so determined not to let herself get hurt that she repeatedly pushes away the people who love her — an emotional remnant, perhaps, of the struggle to resist the bounty of her mother’s cupboard.