The Middlesteins tells the story of Edie and Richard Middlestein; their two children, Robin and Benny; and Benny’s wife Rachelle and their two kids Emily and Josh. Edie has a weight problem. She’s eating herself to death, and even after two surgeries for arterial disease in her legs and facing the possibility of heart surgery, she cannot—or more accurately will not—stop eating. As a child Edie was loved and somewhat indulged. Her parents were smart and affectionate people. She eats because she’s hungry, because food makes her feel powerful and complete. The story is told from varying third-person points of view including all the family members, and at one point even from a second-person plural view of friends of the family.
After her husband Richard leaves her, Edie continues to eat, while her family members do their best to deal with the effects of illness and the separation on their own lives. Edie is clearly smart and capable, but she is also angry. She is, you might say, fed up. Richard is by turns helpless, guilty, hapless, and righteous in his decision to leave a woman who clearly was gone long before he physically left her. For Robin, Benny, and Rachelle, Richard is clearly the bad guy for leaving his sick wife. But for the reader, Attenberg quite smartly never makes it easy to lay blame either on Edie or Richard. Neither one of them is particularly likable, but it’s easy to empathize with both their positions, and they both deserve a second chance.
Reading The Middlesteins is a bit like watching an indie comedy-drama about family. It has a daughter with a borderline alcohol problem who teaches private school and has a difficult time with relationships; it has the tightly wound sister-in-law obsessed with raw vegetables and stalking her mother-in-law; it has the hapless Chinese cook who is helplessly in love with Edie and cooks wonderful large meals especially for her. You may not have seen these exact characters on the screen, but you know what I mean—and you can see the story very clearly in this way in your mind as you read. Well, you can if you happen to like indie comedy-dramas, which I do.
The Middlesteins is relatable and easy to read, and I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. (Note: This post was written before the announcement that Amazon bought Goodreads. I haven’t abandoned them yet; I’m planning t osee how things evolve over the coming months.) Attenberg writes her characters well—they are wholly flawed and human, likable sometimes and annoying the next. She’s both funny and empathetic. This is a story that could have easily turned the corner into being either absurd or macabre, but it never goes outside the bounds of exactly what it is: the story of an unremarkable family dealing with a problem that’s probably not altogether uncommon—but it’s also a problem that’s strangely difficult to discuss. Lots of novels exist about families dealing with relatives who are drug addicts or alcoholics or who have depression, and in a way, dealing with a family member who is obese seems no different, at least on the surface. The problem is, how do you tell someone to stop eating, when we must eat to survive? That conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that until we have medical evidence to the contrary, we cannot say that someone who chooses to keep eating in the face of death is not of sound mind. We want to believe, as Edie’s daughter-in-law Rachelle does, that eating healthy and exercising and love and support from family can be enough to help someone facing a weight problem. But what if the person does not want to be helped?
This novel seems more personal than political. Attenberg does not make Edie either an object of self-righteous “fat pride” or an object of scorn. And in fact that’s probably the best thing about the book—she doesn’t make Edie an object at all, or a stereotype. She’s just a flawed human, making her way in the world the best way she can.