The Middlesteins by American author Jami Attenberg is a delightfully light read which still manages to effectively address the very serious issue of overeating. At the heart of the novel is Edie Middlestein, a middle-aged morbidly obese woman, a lawyer for thirty-five years until ‘let go’ by the law firm that employed her. Edie, a generous woman admired by many, has spent a lifetime overeating, but her problem is now pathological and life-threatening. She indulges in late-night, sneaky solitary eating binges, and diabetic, she’s facing her second operation for an “arterial disease” in her legs. Although “warned” by her doctor, Edie refuses to make any changes. Edie’s two children, Robin and Benny both have different ways of dealing with their mother’s eating disorder, but mostly family members ignore the problem. A crisis occurs in the Middlestein family when Edie’s pharmacist husband, 60-year-old Richard, decides he’s had enough and leaves. Richard and Edie’s two children are stunned at the news–after all “Richard Middlestein had signed up for life with Edie.” Here’s Edie breaking the news to Robin:
“There’s something I need to tell you before we go home,” her mother had said, heavy breath, hulking beneath her fur coat, no flesh visible except for her putty colored face, her drooping chin, her thick-ringed neck. “Your father has left me. He’s had enough.”
“This is a joke,” said Robin.
“This is for real,” said her mother. “He’s flown the coop, and he’s not coming back.”
What a weird way to put it, Robin realized later. As if her father were being held like some house pet, trapped in a cage lined with shit-stained newspaper. Her feelings for her father swerved wildly in that moment. Her mother was tough. The situation was tough. He had taken the coward’s way out, but Robin had never begrudged people their cowardice; it was simply a choice to be made. Still she hated herself for thinking like that. This was her mother, and she was sick, and she needed help. Thrown up against her admittedly fragile moral code, Robin knew that there was an obvious judgment to be made. His decision was despicable. Her train of thought would never be uttered out loud, only the final resolution: Her father would not be forgiven.
Edie’s son, Benny tends to take a more moderate approach to the impending divorce than his unforgiving sister, Robin. Benny’s wife, Rochelle (“his wife with the nose job,”) is another matter entirely. Rochelle, who’s fiercely into family responsibility, initially believes that the entire family must “work together to get Edie back on track” with Richard doing his part to see that Edie isn’t “sneaking trips to fast-food joints.” But after hearing the news about Richard’s departure, Rochelle follows Edie on an eating binge odyssey over town, and begins to realise the magnitude of the problem. All of Rachelle’s frustration and thwarted vigilance turns to her own home where she overcompensates by introducing exacting diet regimes. She’s rather embarrassed about Richard’s public acknowledgment of the family dirty laundry, and she’s also concerned about the impact on her two children. Taking the dissolution of her in-laws’ marriage quite personally she expects Benny to intervene in the situation.
While Edie continues eating herself to death, Richard who hasn’t had sex for years begins frantically dating via the internet and discovers that there was hundreds of lonely eligible (and some not so eligible) women close to home. Although the novel goes back and forth from the past to the future, most of the novel is concerned with the fallout of Richard’s departure. He leased a condo opposite his pharmacy and secretly furnished it before making the announcement that he was leaving Edie. For his part, Richard argues that he simply can’t take any more.
“… my wife made me miserable, she picked at me till I bled on a daily basis, so much worse lately, more than you could ever imagine. And she got fat, so fat I could not love her in the same way anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I like a little meat on the bones. I knew what I was marrying. But she was hurting herself. Every day more and more. That is hard on a person. To watch that happen.” he lowered his voice.” And it had been a long time since we’d had marital relations.”
He could not bring himself to explain further that he had imagined that his sex drive would fade away in his late fifties and he would just forget that they had been sleeping on opposite sides of the bed, clinging to their respective corners as if they were holding on to the edge of a cliff. But sixty came. His sex drive still simmered insistently within him, unused but not expired, a fire in the hole. He had never cared before, but now he suddenly realized that he could not go the rest of his life without sex, that he refused to give up the fight.
Food, not surprisingly, has a prominent place in the novel. There are some wonderful descriptions of food, of course; not normal meals–banquets, and it’s through the scenes of family get-togethers and celebrations that the author shows us the tendency to celebrate life with ridiculous amounts of food. We also see the importance of food in the lives of the characters. There’s Edie’s Russian grandfather who, legend has it, made it all the way to America eating potato peel, and then there’s food-obsessed Edie, rewarded and consoled with food in childhood–already chunky at age 5 and “disarmingly solid,” who in middle age and suffering from diabetes, gorges in secret and yet never feels full.
One of the criticisms of the novel is that it skates on the surface and doesn’t deal with the more serious issues. I don’t agree. The novel is written with a light, comic touch which may seem at odds with the subject matter, but somehow, for this reader it worked. The deeper issues are addressed, but after all this is a family, a set of individuals who’ve spent a lifetime ignoring Edie’s eating disorder, so Edie isn’t the only one with the problem here. Author Jami Attenberg shows the emotional difficulties of confronting Edie and also the difficulties of living with someone who appears to be determined to eat their way to death. As Edie’s daughter, Robin says:
“It’s not that I don’t care,” said Robin. “It’s just that I don’t want to know.”
Everyone is very comfortable ignoring Edie’s problem until Richard, the man who actually lives with Edie decides he can’t take it anymore, and it’s at that point that all hell breaks loose. The novel asks a difficult question: how do you stop someone who is determined to eat themselves to death? Edie is engaged in pathological behaviour, and her behaviour has impacted everyone in the family. Are other people in the family enablers–responsible or partially responsible for Edie’s self-destruction? Edie is at the heart of the novel, and yet she remains strangely blurred. I suspect that this is a deliberate decision on the part of the author as Edie is not understood by anyone in her family or social circle. Edie’s eating disorder, although initiated in childhood, does not occur in a vacuum, and there are hints that her emotionally empty marriage caused her to turn to her old constant friend: food. Towards the end of the novel, the POV shifts, and for a period, suddenly scenes are through the collective eyes of Edie and Richard’s friends, their peers, and as a narrative tool, these friends seem to form a Greek chorus providing commentary–and possibly acknowledged failed responsibility towards Edie–a woman who never hesitated to give her time and energy to those who needed her help.