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Hungry Hearts And Family Matters In 'Middlesteins'

Nov 20, 2012

At first glance, a novel in which the main character eats herself to death may not seem like the most felicitous pick for Thanksgiving week; but The Middlesteins turns out to be a tough but affecting story about family members putting up with each other, even in their most unlovely, chewing-with-their-mouths-open life moments. If you have a Thanksgiving family reunion looming before you that doesn't exactly promise to be a Norman Rockwell painting, The Middlesteins may just be the perfect literary corrective to overindulgence in high-calorie holiday expectations.

The main character of Jami Attenberg's black comedy is Edie Middlestein, a woman in late middle age suffering from diabetes and other complications of a lifelong addiction to food. From a husky girlhood filled with thick liverwurst sandwiches and salty pickles to her obese present, Edie has thought of food as joy; in fact, it's been the only dependable happiness of her life.

When the novel opens, Edie's body is falling apart and so is her family. Husband Richard, a pharmacist in suburban Chicago, has decided to slink away from their 30-year-marriage while he still has a shot at love with a more active partner. Single adult daughter Robin, who's a battle-scarred escapee from the Teach for America program, resents being cast in the role of her ailing mother's caretaker. Meanwhile, the Middlesteins' dope-smoking son, Benny, and his glamorous wife are so consumed by their own twin teenagers' approaching b'nai mitzvah that, initially, they can barely tear themselves away from visions of caterers' chocolate fountains and hip-hop dance lessons to attend to the family crisis.

Attenberg's novel "hip-hops" around a lot itself, and that fragmented narration adds to its emotional punch. We simultaneously hear different characters' perspectives, and the consequences of events fan out from their beginnings. For instance, the novel takes us back to Edie and Richard's first date: Edie was, then, in law school and upset because her own father was dying. Listen to how even this quick flashback to Richard's entrance into her life jaggedly jumps around in time:

[T]here he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but [Edie] didn't know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met [Edie], but [Richard] didn't know that yet) ... As her father hovered on the edge of something terrible, as he dwindled down into a pale, bony version of his former self, as he threatened to disappear entirely, here was a man who was tall and healthy and full of something Edie found herself wanting to devour.

Edie's hungry heart will turn out to be her — and Richard's — undoing as a couple, but The Middlesteins leavens the minor tragedy of their fate with satiric social observations about, for instance, the various humiliations of the senior citizen dating scene, as well as the peculiarly high emotional burdens of modern parenthood. Here's Richard briefly reflecting on his relationship with his angry daughter, Robin: "He didn't get her, he knew that much. He didn't know why he needed to get her anyway. His father had never gotten him. Why did people need to be gotten so much?"

As the Middlesteins muddle through — continuing to misunderstand, abuse and even disgust each other — the novel culminates in a glorious celebration; an explicitly Jewish spin on the traditional wedding scene that closes Shakespeare's comedies; namely a b'nai mitzvah extravaganza! Attenberg's stroke of comic genius here is to narrate the party through a yenta-heavy chorus of aging couples who were Edie and Richard's lifelong friends. They're broadly critical of all they survey and, at the same time, clearly terrified that heartbreak and mortality may be soon tapping them on their collective slumping shoulders, too.

Ironically for a novel about the fallout of one woman's food addiction, The Middlesteins is a slim volume, but it sticks to your ribs.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Food, glorious food, is the villain of Jami Attenberg's new novel, "The Middlesteins" about a Midwestern Jewish family whose matriarch can't pass a Chinese restaurant, a pizza place or a McDonald's without making a pit stop. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: At first glance, a novel in which the main character eats herself to death may not seem like the most felicitous pick for Thanksgiving week, but "The Middlesteins" turns out to be a tough-but-affecting story about family members putting up with each other, even in their most unlovely chewing-with-their-mouths-open life moments.

If you have a Thanksgiving family reunion looming before you that doesn't exactly promise to be a Norman Rockwell painting, "The Middlesteins" may just be the perfect literary corrective to overindulgence in high calorie holiday expectations. The main character of Jami Attenberg's black comedy is Edie Middlestein, a woman in late middle age suffering from diabetes and other complications of a lifelong addiction to food.

From a husky girlhood filled with thick liverwurst sandwiches and salty pickles to her obese present, Edie has thought of food as joy. In fact, it's been the only dependable happiness of her life. When the novel opens, Edie's body is falling apart and so is her family. Husband Richard, a pharmacist in suburban Chicago, has decided to slink away from their 30-year marriage while he still has a shot at love with a more active partner.

Single adult daughter Robin, who's a battle-scarred escapee from the Teach for America program resents being cast in the role of her ailing mother's caretaker. Meanwhile, the Middlesteins' dope-smoking son Benny and his glamorous wife as so consumed by their own twin teenagers approaching b'nai mitzvah that initially they can barely tear themselves away from visions of caterers, chocolate fountains and hip-hop dance lessons to attend to the family crisis.

Attenberg's novel hip hops around a lot of itself and that fragmented narration adds to its emotional punch. We simultaneously hear different characters' perspectives and the consequences of events fan out from their beginnings. For instance, the novel takes us back to Edie and Richard's first date. Edie was then in law school and upset because her own father was dying. Listen to how even this quick flashback to Richard's entrance into her life jaggedly jumps around in time.

(Reading) There he was in a suit. It was his only suit but Edie didn't know that yet. And he was smiling. His happiest days were behind him the minute he met Edie but Richard didn't know that yet. As her father hovered on the edge of something terrible, as he dwindled down into a pale, bony version of his former self, as he threatened to disappear entirely, here was a man who was tall and healthy and full of something Edie found herself wanting to devour.

Edie's hungry heart will turn out to be her and Richard's undoing as a couple, but "The Middlesteins" leavens the minor tragedy of their fate with satiric social observations about, for instance, the various humiliations of the senior citizen dating scene as well as the peculiarly high emotional burdens of modern parenthood. Here's Richard briefly reflecting on his relationship with his angry daughter Robin.

(Reading) He didn't get her. He knew that much. He didn't know why he needed to get her anyway. His father had never gotten him. Why did people need to be gotten so much?

As the Middlesteins muddle through, continuing to misunderstand, abuse, and even disgust each other, the novel culminates in a glorious celebration, an explicitly Jewish spin on the traditional wedding scene that closes Shakespeare's comedies - namely, a b'nai mitzvah extravaganza.

Attenberg's stroke of comic genius here is to narrate the party through a yenta-heavy chorus of aging couples who were once Edie and Richard's lifelong friends. They're broadly critical of all they survey and at the same time clearly terrified that heartbreak and mortality may soon be tapping them on their collective slumping shoulders, too. Ironically, for a novel about the fallout of one woman's food addiction, "The Middlesteins" is a slim volume. But it sticks to your ribs.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.