The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

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.

Review copy.

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18 Comments

Filed under Attenberg Jami, Fiction

18 responses to “The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

  1. This sounds like a good read exploring a real modern dilemma (not so much the over-eating but the family behaviours and functioning around it). Does it remind you at all of, say, The corrections? I rather like the sound of the light, comic touch. In the right hands it can work well – and, after all, we humans really are a bit comical aren’t we?

  2. This is the one addiction that I will never understand and I’m so glad I’m not affected. Imagine? It’s not like going cold turkey with anything else as it’s realy impossible, so how do you refrain yourself? Anyway, the core of the book seems to focus on the co-dependency. It’s so frequent that everyone turns their back and that the only way to deal is to run away in the end.
    Sounds like an important and entertaining book to me.

    • I don’t have the addiction but I understand as I’m the opposite. I really don’t care about food. It’s just something needed to live. That said, you know that I am vegan so I care in the sense that I care about what I eat and I can also tell the difference between something that’s well made and something that’s been slopped together, but on the whole I eat very very plainly and simply. I’ve known people like Edie, very sad.

      A co-worker was grossly obese and I couldn’t really understand why. She told everyone that it was her metabolism and I could see this argument. At lunch she’d play with a couple of carrot sticks and nibbled at celery. Then I learned about the secret midnight binges. She would hide cake mixes throughout the house (rather as an alcoholic hides booze) and then at midnight, she’d get up and make several cakes and eat the lot. Once we went to lunch at one of those all-you-can-eat salad bar places. She made this enormous salad that resembled the leaning tower of Pisa. It took real talent to make it that high on the plate. Once at the table, something was unleashed and she began asking the others what this or that food object was on their plates, and suddenly her fork would spring out and she’d nail it and eat it. It took a while to understood about the secret eating and why she hid it etc. as this was the first experience knowing someone with an eating addiction.

      • It’s awfully sad and when I say I don’t understand it, I mean that, like for you, it’s not too important for me and I don’t like sweets. I’ve always been skinny and no matter how much chocolate or cake you put in front of me, I’m just not tempted. It’s the type of addiction I’m totally imune to. I think it’s a nasty addiction because you cannot just stop eating. I never really thought of binges but, yes, that makes sense. I often wonder how this and that person can be obese when you never see them eat.
        I’m really thankful it doesn’t tempt me. I know a few very overweight vegetarians but as a vegan you may be less prone … most sweets are done with some milk produce or other, no?

        • There are several places in the novel that describe Edie eating and putting away a monumental amount of food. The point is made that no matter what, she is never “full”, never feels ‘full.” I don’t like feeling full or heavy and much prefer to eat lightly, but it seems that Edie is seeking something else and food is a compensation for love. Or at last that’s how it started. As you say you’re immune to the temptation. The book seems to make the argument that overeaters take it to another level when they begin eating either secretly or alone. Edie does both, and so did the co-worker I knew. When you see it up close, it’s rather unsettling.

          Yes as a vegan you learn to read labels. Milk is in a lot of stuff, and gelatine is another ingredient that finds its way in there.

  3. Brian Joseph

    This sounds superb. I myself suffer from this issue. As someone who suffers but has somewhat controlled this issue it sounds as if this is handled in very intelligent and imaginative way here.

    • Do you dread the holidays with all its accompanying feasting?

      • Brian Joseph

        No, I really have had it under control over the last five years. Though my theme is now “quality over quantity”. However I run 20 plus miles a week so if I do go a little overboard on the holidays it is somewhat tempered. So I really look forward to big feasts. I still need to be careful however.

  4. acommonreaderuk

    What an interesting book – sometimes a novel can illustrate the problems of life more than a book about the problem itself. I suppose when one family member develops some dreadful problem like over-eating the whole family becomes complicit in the cover-up and the displacement activities – a little like alcoholism perhaps. Perhaps this would make a good film but it might be difficult to cast Edie!

    • One of the points the author makes is that there’s a status quo with the situation until Richard pulls the plug. I thought this sounded interesting too, Tom, and that’s what made me decide to read it.

      My money would be on Divine aka Glenn Milstead for the role, but he’s deceased.

  5. Interesting. The second quote worked better for me than the first. Walking out is terrible, but then should Richard give his life to enabling Edie? Should he be asked to give up all hope of sex for the rest of his days? That doesn’t seem right either, that too is terrible.

    Perhaps the novel had to be light, as otherwise it would be too dark.

    • I think the book does a good job of examining the moral dilemmas of the situation. Richard’s departure is an announcement to their circle of friends that there’s a problem, and everyone’s been ok w/denial, downplay or shoulder shrugging to that point. I really enjoyed the book more than I expected to. I can’t think of a book that dealt with the problem quite so directly.

  6. Hi,
    I was away and I’m late again at reading your last entries. I recommended The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke to someone, she’s currently reading it and enjoys it a lot.

    You must be a good writer to choose such a topic and avoid all the pitfalls going with it : over-pathos, over-moralization, over-sensationalism, etc.

    When I was reading, I was asking myself the same question as Max. Sometimes there’s no other choice than run.

    This passage caught my attention:
    “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 do that a lot here, not only for the holidays. We invite each other at home for a good meal and stays sitting at the table for hours, eating slowly and chatting. There aren’t always huge amount of food but it’s the opportunity to cook something nice and have a nice time together.
    I don’t know how you cope with this when you have an eating disorder. If you avoid going, you cut an important part of your social life.

    • I have no idea how people with eating disorders cope with the hols either. As someone who eats a bit differently (vegan) I can say that it’s difficult to eat outside of my space. I was invited to a get-together a few years ago and there was literally NOTHING there I could eat. Next time, I’ll take a can of nuts or something.

  7. Joanna

    As a person who has struggled mightily with compulsive eating and weight gain, I thought I would feel compassion for Edie. Surprisingly, I found myself disliking her. As a child she longs for her stroller, so she can be wheeled around like a princess. As an adult, she has no compassion or forgiveness for her husband. He is merely a disappointment to her because he is a human being. Edie feels trapped, but despite having a good job and a supportive family, she does not break free. She sinks into bitterness, self-pity, and food. She uses her daughter as a surrogate friend and shares inappropriate information about her husband with her. She ignores how scared her family is for her and just sulks and eats herself to death. An unlikeable character.

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