The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I just left The Middlesteins, and I felt like I spent a lifetime at their homes in three days. The time spent with them was super intense. Attenberg’s writing about four generations of ImageEdie Middlestein’s family, her father an immigrant from Russia who got here so starved he could never get enough to eat and spent his life helping other immigrants from Russia, and her mother who loved her too much and fed her too much is so rich and visual. There’s a claustrophobia here that’s real as you get into the kishkas of this family. As Edie, whose weight is documented in chapter headings, begins to suffer from diabetes, and continues to kill herself by compulsively eating; her husband, Richard Middlestein, decides to walk out. He’s had enough; he can’t stop Edie from eating herself to death and he doesn’t want to see it happen. Besides, they haven’t had a good marriage in years. Their children Barry, his wife, Rachelle, and Robin, go to war against him and try to force him to fight for Edie, but Richard refuses. 

Surrounding this there’s a garish b’nai mitzvah being planned, Rachelle, Edie’s super thin daughter-in-law, is ordering family members to follow Edie round and force her to walk, etc, while purging her family’s menu of meat, sugar, well, anything tasty. All the while Edie is plowing through food, especially that at a favorite Chinese restaurant whose chef, Kenneth loves her. “…,and when Emily looked at her grandmother’s face, peachy And flushed and so clearly delighted, then watched as her grandmother leaned forward toward this man and fully, blatantly kissed him on the lips, like she didn’t even care that Emily was standing right there(with so many questions), Emily knew that there was no way her grandmother was ever going to go away to any fat farm or ever stop eating all that Chinese food, and Emily could not blame her because if she had a man who looked Like Kenneth looked at her grandmother and wanted to cook for her and kiss her all over her hands and cheeks and lips, she would stay with him forever…” P. 191-192 

In a scene reminiscent of the Yom Kippur Al Chet, Robin is listening to her sick mother “And with each story she told, each howling, moaning tale, it was as if she were striking her own heart again again and again with a closed fist. Either she was resuscitating it or she was destroying it. Either she was going to live or die. Robin did not know yet which it would be.”

There’s a lot going on. It’s not all about Edie. Chapters have interesting titles that I began to notice somewhere around “Male Pattern” which is about Barry and his incipient baldness, though no other men in the family are bald. Points of view vary, like

the cleverly narrated by the old friends of the Middlesteins who helped found the synagogue, about the b’nai mitzvah ceremony and party. There are chapters about each of the Middlesteins and looks into the future, that sometimes become dizzying

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