The Middlesteins speaks to anyone that has ever dealt with an unhealthy obsession with food, family drama, and heartbreak. I’m pretty sure that those qualifications cover most of the female population. Jami Attenberg’s simultaneously poignant yet humorous depiction of the Middlestein family results in a stunning novel that is undoubtedly one of the best of the year.
The title family’s matriarch, Edie, is morbidly obese. Edie deals with everything by eating; she has dealt with life this way since childhood, and has raised her children to do the same. Now her children are grown, Edie’s marriage has crumbled, and her immense weight has become a threat to her life. Her children are left to cope with Edie’s impending mortality in the midst of their parents shocking and painful divorce. Edie refuses to assume responsibility for her health, and her husband, Richard, similarly refuses to assume responsibility for Edie.
The Middlesteins depicts the disintegration of a family in more ways than one, and uniquely relates the manner that young adult children are forced to deal with the ways in which their parents choose to handle the stresses of mid-life. While each family member’s situation is impartially presented, Attenberg manages to simultaneously convey the idiosyncrasies and destructive behaviors exhibited by individuals of the Middlestein family.
The loss of the family unit and the resulting devastation are beautifully handled, but Attenberg truly shines in her portrait of a chronic eating disorder and its consequences. Edie’s thought process regarding this all-consuming relationship is revealed to be complicated and yet very simple all at once, and the manner in which this obsession impacts all areas of Edie’s life is both fascinating and upsetting.
Divorce and obesity are two of the most common issues that we face as a culture, and we tend to be overly-sensitive when it comes to discussing these topics. Attenberg’s novel is raw and direct, relating with a somber authority the impact that these issues have on all involved.