Book Review: “The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg

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The Middlesteins
By Jami Attenberg
Grand Central/Hachette
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
I picked up the The Middlesteins after learning that the novel is set mostly in the Chicago suburbs–Skokie and most likely Buffalo Grove, where the author Jami Attenberg spent her childhood (the second ‘burb isn’t named). I know Skokie pretty well, and I know Andersonville–another setting in the book–even better. Andersonville is the location of my favorite brunch place and just a short walk from my apartment. Because of all this, my eye for recognizable details switched into high gear somewhere in the early going.
Alas, as a “Chicago novel” The Middlesteins is a bit of a disappointment. Andersonville seems vague and generic. The neighborhood is referred to again and again as “downtown.” That may be a small and nitpicky issue, but I didn’t believe that an author who really knew anything about Chicago would refer to Andersonville that way. Ms. Attenberg’s most enthusiastic descriptive writing is saved for New York City. Her author’s bio states that she lives in Brooklyn, and the writing makes it obvious that she loves that city more than sweet home Chicago.
Luckily, there’s much more to The Middlesteins than just the setting. The book focuses on a period of a few months in the lives of the titular family, which includes Edie, her husband Richard, and her children Robin and Benny. Edie and Richard have been married for thirty years, and you get the sense that this family’s drama’s are of the small variety, or have been. Sure, Edie has an unhealthy relationship with food (she tips the scales at more than 300 pounds), but we live in America, don’t we? Sure, Robin might drink too much, say something she doesn’t mean, have a minor breakdown, but she’s the resilient type. Sure, Richard might not be happy exactly, but who is?
Then the unexpected happens. Edie’s obesity causes complications–diabetes, heart trouble, the usual suspects–and her health declines to the point that she requires surgery. We get the sense that Edie might not be be the easiest person to live with–she’s brash, depressed, stubborn, set in her ways. When Edie is in the hospital awaiting a second surgery, Richard decides to get off the train that’s been carrying him from marriage to fatherhood to eventual death. Just when his wife needs him most, he leaves her. It’s a shocking moment in a family history that seems mostly devoid of shocking moments. When daughter Robin tries to help her mother deal with her heartbreak, she’s shocked to realize just how much junk food Edie is consuming on a daily basis–whole packages of cookies, cartons of ice cream, road trips with stops at Burger King, McDonald’s and Taco Bell, all on the way to the Chinese restaurant where Edie will consume a feast that could feed an average Midwestern family. Edie’s addiction–and her stubbornness, since she’s basically unwilling to take the proper medications or to alter her behavior in any way–are literally killing her. So, for the rest of the novel Robin et al. try and fail to convince Edie to eat less.
But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of this novel. Ms. Attenberg is supremely skilled at dipping in and out of her characters lives. Small flashback scenes are rendered with just enough detail to allow the reader to grasp the humanity of the characters, the impossibility of the situation being described. I loved how the book was punctuated from time to time by flash-forwards as well, and I loved how every single character was flawed but still sympathetic. Showing Edie’s positive qualities through the eyes of the the Chinese restaurant owner, showing what the neighbors thought of the Middlestein family through the first person plural chapter toward the end, and allowing Richard his final moment of redemption were all brilliant touches.
The Middlesteins is a crowd-pleaser, a quick read, and very emotionally satisfying. In addition to containing perhaps the best use of the “micro-scene” technique that I have ever encountered (a small flashback scene told in summary and not more than a page long–I just coined that term and have no idea if there’s a better one), The Middlesteins also contains one of the ten best closing lines I think I have ever read in a novel, which comes at the end of a particularly devastating “micro-scene.” You got me, Ms. Attenberg, you got me good.
Out of 10: 9.5
Read even more about The Middlesteins: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia