Category Archives: Attenberg Jami

All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

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All Grown Up: Jami Attenberg

I really enjoyed Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins–the very funny story of how one woman’s overeating impacts her family. It’s a serious subject treated in a very readable light-hearted manner, and that brings me to All Grown Up, the story of a single 40- year-old woman, a New Yorker, a former artist, whose meaningless relationships and a job that serves to pay the bills have left Andrea Bern adrift in her own life. Ultimately this is the story of a woman whose life didn’t end up the way she planned and how she needs to come to terms with this.

As Andrea falls further into the void of meaninglessness, the years pass, her friends move, marry, have children, and seem to slip into gilded adulthoods:

Other people you know seem to change quite easily. They have no problem at all with succeeding at their careers and buying apartments and moving to other cities and falling in love and getting married and hyphenating their names and adopting rescue cats and, finally, having children, and then documenting all of this meticulously on the internet. Really, it appears to be effortless on their part. Their lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.

While Andrea’s employment started out as simply a means to an end, somehow temporary turns into permanent. She’s offered a promotion but after realizing that means “more responsibility,” she steps away from the opportunity. She still sees the job as a temporary situation–a stop gap in her life as an artist. And yet the years are running away from her …

you are moved to a new cube, which you must share with a freshly hired coworker who is thirteen years younger than you and is hilarious and loud and pretty and probably making half of what you make but still spends it on tight dresses. 

The years pass for Andrea relentlessly as the chapters move back and forward in time. Andrea’s brother and sister-in-law have a child, a baby girl who is born with a heart defect. This is a child who will never have the chance to grow up, and just as Andrea sidesteps responsibilities, she also avoids becoming involved with the brief life this child will have.

all grown up

The chapters read like interconnecting short stories. We see the trajectory of the life of one of Andrea’s best friends, Indigo, as she marries and has a child. Indigo, who lives in a two million dollar Tribeca loft has a seemingly perfect, envious life–even if Indigo becomes a living breathing cliche (yes she’s a yoga instructor) in order to achieve this state of Nirvana. I loved the character of Indigo–most of us know someone like her–so perfect, you want to vomit. One of the funniest chapters in the book occurs when Andrea attends Indigo’s wedding and finds herself sitting at the ‘singles’ table.

I sit at the singles table under a nest of twinkling lights and grape leaves. There are four other single women at the table: two of them are lesbians, who are best friends with each other and seem invested in gossiping about everyone they went to college with; one of them is a retired nun, whose story remains mysterious throughout the night; and the fourth woman is Karen, a real career gal. I say this not to make fun of her but because she described herself as such, which means it is doubly true. 

There are two gay men at the table, who used to date and are using the evening to hash out a few things, and there are two straight men: a newly divorced uncle of the groom named Warren, and a tall, broad, masculine man named Kurt. 

All Grown Up is a very funny, lively look at one woman’s messy life. Andrea careens from disaster to disaster in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t acknowledge as her own. We get glimpses of Andrea’s youth, her chaotic upbringing, her drinking, her drug use and her eccentric activist mother. For potential readers: in adulthood, Andrea has numerous pointless sexual relationships, and while the sex isn’t explicit, it’s there. Also I would say that if you don’t like the ‘f’ word, then move on. This is very much a New York novel, grounded in its unique environment, so it should appeal to fans of Tana Janowitz. I really liked All Grown Up; it’s a book that made me laugh even as I shook my head over Andrea’s actions and mistakes.

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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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