Do we really need “The Middlesteins”? It looks like another quiet novel stuck in the suburbs, another mordant comedy about a dysfunctional Jewish family, another bittersweet take on the relationship between food and love. Is Jami Attenberg fixing us the pastrami-on-rye sandwich of literary fiction that we’ve eaten thousands of times before?
Well, as any deli patron knows: There are sandwiches and then there are sandwiches. Attenberg, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, combines the rather ordinary ingredients of her fourth novel to make something worth chewing on.
“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.
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.
The plot’s subtle forward movement toward a B’nai Mitzvah for Edie’s grandchildren is periodically interrupted by a curious narrative strategy: Without warning, Attenberg suddenly glances forward a few months or many years, sometimes just an aside, sometimes a long, breathless passage of foreshadowing. It’s weirdly effective at placing the current moment in painful emotional contrast to what’s to come. On Richard and Edie’s first date, for instance, the narrator drops this deadly warning: “His happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn’t know that yet.” Much later, during a fun moment with their children, Attenberg notes, “Neither Edie nor Robin knew yet that when the kids grew older and began having ideas and opinions at odds with Richard’s he would shut them out of his affections with such carelessness.”
The range here is small. Except for Richard leaving his wife, these are not people prone to change or drama. Attenberg’s success lies in miniatures; she mutes even the few potential moments of conflict, focusing instead on the inaudible repercussions. But with a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, she renders this family’s ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Jami Attenberg
273 pp. $24.99