Middlesteins (Attenberg)

The Middlesteins
Jami Attenberg, 2012
Grand Central Publishing
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781455507214



Summary
For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food—thinking about it, eating it—and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle—a whippet thin perfectionist—is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?

With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1971
Raised—Buffalo Grove, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., John Hopkins Universisty
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York City, New York


Author Bio
Jami Attenberg is an American writer of fiction and essays. She grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Writing.

Her early works were published in numerous zines and in a 2003 chapbook called Deli Life. Her first book, Instant Love, a collection of interconnected short stories, was published in 2006, followed by a novel, The Kept Man, published in 2008. Her third book, The Melting Season, was released in 2010. Her newest novel The Middlesteins came out in 2012.

Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including Nerve and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Expansive heart and sly wit.... Throughout this poignant novel, the characters wrestle with two defining questions: What do we owe each other after a life together? What do we owe ourselves?
Abbe Wright, O Magazine


A panoply of neurotic characters fills Attenberg’s multigenerational novel about a Midwestern Jewish family. Shifting points of view tell the story of the breakup and aftermath of Edie and Richard Middlestein’s nearly 40-year marriage as Edie slowly eats herself to death. Richard and his brilliant but demanding and ever larger wife raised two children. Robin is intense and hostile; Benny lives an idyll with his wife, Rachelle, in the Chicago suburbs, sharing a joint after putting their twins to bed at night. Much of Rachelle’s time is spent assuring that the twins’ b’nai mitzvah extravaganza goes off without a hitch. When complications surrounding Edie’s diabetes precipitate Richard’s filing for divorce, the already tightly wound Rachelle becomes obsessed with the family’s physical and moral health. Soon the affable Benny’s hair is falling out in clumps. Attenberg (Instant Love) makes her characters’ thoughts—Richard and Benny in particular—seem utterly real, and her wry, observational humor often hits sideways rather than head-on. Edie’s overeating, described with great sensuality, will resonate, with only the obstreperousness of all three generations of Middlestein women (granddaughter Emily included) marring this wonderfully messy and layered family portrait.
Publishers Weekly


Edie Middlestein is digging her grave with her teeth, as the saying goes. Previously a successful Chicago attorney, Edie has sought comfort in food all her life; she craves fattening treats the way an alcoholic craves booze. Now that she is over 60 and over 300 pounds, her partners have pretty much forced early retirement on her. Edie is also facing a second surgery on her legs. Her husband, Richard, has had enough. He leaves his wife after nearly 40 years of marriage, to the shock of their easygoing son, Benny, and the anger of their difficult daughter, Robin. Despite this sad scenario, Attenberg (The Kept Man) finds ample comic moments in this wry tale about an unraveling marriage. She has a great ear for dialog, and the novel is perfectly paced. Her characters are all believable, if not always sympathetic, though Edie's romance with a Chinese restaurant owner seems improbable. Verdict: Attenberg seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy in this warm and engaging family saga of love and loss. —Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Library Journal


From Attenberg (The Melting Season, 2010, etc.), the deeply satisfying story of a Chicago family coming apart at the seams and weaving together at the same time. Former lawyer Edie Middlestein has always been a large presence, brilliant as a lawyer, loving as a mother, shrewish as a wife. The novel is organized according to Edie's fluctuations in weight, and the descriptions of her sensual joy in the gluttony that may be killing her are often mouthwatering.... While the novel focuses intensely on each member of the family, it also offers a panoramic, more broadly humorous, verging-on-caricature view of the Midwestern Jewish suburbia in which the Middlesteins are immersed, from the shopping centers to the synagogues. But as the Middlesteins and their friends move back and forth in time, their lives take on increasing depth individually and together. A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Why can’t Edie divorce herself from her relationship with food? What makes her eat? When the story begins, her health is far gone. Do you think she could have learned to curb her appetite? If so, when?

2. Do you believe Richard made the right decision, breaking off his marriage with Edie? Why or why not? Did their subsequent dates with other people change your opinion? Did their children’s reactions?

3. At the beginning of the novel, Rachelle gives the impression her marriage with Benny is democratic. “At any given moment, she could never be sure who was in control in their relationship” (p. 31). How does this change over the course of the novel? Do you think Rachelle has right to pressure Benny to talk to his parents, or do you think she should have spoken with each of them directly?

4. Each of the characters struggles with their responsibility to Edie. Why didn’t Edie’s family act sooner? Why didn’t the neighbors step in? Are the other characters at fault here, or do you believe it is Edie’s responsibility to care for herself? Do you think Rachelle overreacts?|

5. Emily is described as resembling her Aunt Robin, since they share black, beady eyes and a surly temperament. What other similarities did you notice between the family members? Do you think Benny is like his father, or Robin like her mother?

6. What is the significance of the suburban Chicago setting in this novel? How has the Jewish community there shifted since Richard opened his first pharmacy?

7. What role does Jewish heritage play for Robin, when she feels so conflicted about her faith? Why do you think she tries so hard to avoid going to Daniel’s family Seder? Do you think her romance with Daniel changes her relationship with her faith?

8. Were you surprised that Edie’s boyfriend was the one to find her when she finally passed? At the end of this chapter, one sentence reveals a lot about Kenneth’s heartbreak: “No one was entitled to anything in his life, least of all love.” Do you agree or disagree? What does this tell you about Kenneth’s love life?

9. How does the funeral change Richard’s feelings for Edie? Why do you think he blames the neighbors for buying food without letting him chip in? How has his relationship with his community been affected by the divorce? Do you think he’ll be able to repair the damage after Edie’s death?

10. The narration often skips ahead in time, so we know which statements the characters make are true and which ones are not. An example is p. 268, where Richard says Robin will regret calling herself an orphan, and she doesn’t until he passes away. How does this narrative style change the story for you? How do the multiple perspectives differ in the telling? Did you sympathize the most with one character above the others? If so, who?

11. Do you believe the last sentence, that the family was close in the end? Why or why not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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