The author’s sharpest wit is reserved for Edie’s high-strung daughter-in-law, Rachelle, who trusts that with sufficient self-control every aspect of life can be perfected. She’s the kind of woman who would “adust the color of the sky to match her own eyes . . . so it could be just right.” The perky housewife with an iron fist seems like a well-worn part, but the novel moves past that stereotype and shows Rachelle as a sympathetic if misguided woman driven by panicked love. 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.
Determined to save her mother-in-law, Rachelle begins spying on Edie, stalking her from fast food to Chinese. Even her own family can’t escape her vigilance: “They ate salmon, bright pink, flavorless, and Rachelle eyed everyone as they reached for a pinch of salt, anything to save this meal, and she whispered, ‘Not too much.’ Brown rice. ‘Drink more water,’ she commanded. Out-of-season strawberries and sugarless cookies that sucked the air out of their lives.” She ruined her book club, too, by insisting “no pastries, no cheese, no crackers. . . . No wine either. Empty calories.” It’s that witty attention to the variety of ways we obsess about food that makes this theme so satisfying. Edie’s compulsive eating is surely killing her, but Rachelle’s joyless dietary control and “the banalities of her suburban existence” guarantee a life barely worth living.