The Mid­dlesteins

  • Review
By – April 16, 2012

Jami Atten­berg, in her fourth and newest nov­el, The Mid­dlesteins, gives us the rare sort of nov­el that cap­tures exact­ly how it feels to live these days through the prism of a fam­i­ly in a very idio­syn­crat­ic cul­ture, i.e. a Jew­ish cul­ture. The book cen­ters around the com­plex though endear­ing char­ac­ter of Edie Mid­dlestein, matri­arch of the novel’s epony­mous fam­i­ly, who finds her­self addict­ed to food, weigh­ing more than 300 pounds and suf­fer­ing from dia­betes. The fam­i­ly balks at efforts to help Edie lose weight as well as in their efforts to under­stand how this obses­sion with food came about. To that extent, Atten­berg gives a com­pli­cat­ed, lov­ing, absurd, sad, and yes, fun­ny por­trait of the larg­er obses­sion with addic­tions, whether food or oth­er­wise, that plagues our Amer­i­can world. We live in a world in which we need our gov­ern­ment to tell us that nor­mal human beings don’t need a foun­tain soda big enough to kill a small ani­mal. Atten­berg enters and inhab­its this world in a sym­pa­thet­ic yet often scathing man­ner that moves into satire as she attempts to show what the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness looks like today. She explores mar­riage — both those some­what suc­cess­ful, and the less suc­cess­ful. She explores our obses­sion with food, whether with eat­ing too much or an often equal­ly haz­ardous obses­sion with health. Atten­berg also attunes her tal­ent­ed writ­ing insight to the absur­di­ties and beau­ties of cul­tur­al Judaism, a Judaism in which twin bnei mitz­vah pre­pare a rap bit for their bar mitz­vah. As with her esti­ma­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture, Atten­berg writes of Jew­ish cul­ture not with­out a crit­i­cal eye, but with a lov­ing sort of crit­i­cism that seeks to look toward a health­i­er cul­ture, whether Jew­ish or not.

Twit­ter Book Club

Read a tran­script from the Decem­ber 12, 2012 Twit­ter Book Club with Jami Attenberg.

Read Jami Atten­berg’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Pass­ing on Sto­ries

Dis­cus­sions Questions

1. Why can’t Edie divorce her­self from her rela­tion­ship with food? What makes her eat? When the sto­ry begins, her health is far gone. Do you think she could have learned to curb her appetite? If so, when?

2. Do you believe Richard made the right deci­sion, break­ing off his mar­riage with Edie? Why or why not? Did their sub­se­quent dates with oth­er peo­ple change your opin­ion? Did their children’s reactions?

3. At the begin­ning of the nov­el, Rachelle gives the impres­sion her mar­riage with Ben­ny is demo­c­ra­t­ic. At any giv­en moment, she could nev­er be sure who was in con­trol in their rela­tion­ship” (p. 31). How does this change over the course of the nov­el? Do you think Rachelle was right to pres­sure Ben­ny to talk to his par­ents, or do you think she should have spo­ken with each of them directly?

4. Each of the char­ac­ters strug­gles with their respon­si­bil­i­ty to Edie. Why didn’t Edie’s fam­i­ly act soon­er? Why didn’t the neigh­bors step in? Are the oth­er char­ac­ters at fault here, or do you believe it is Edie’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for her­self? Do you think Rachelle overreacts?

5. Emi­ly is described as resem­bling her Aunt Robin, since they share black, beady eyes and a surly tem­pera­ment. What oth­er sim­i­lar­i­ties did you notice between the fam­i­ly mem­bers? Do you think Ben­ny is like his father or Robin like her mother?

6. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the sub­ur­ban Chica­go set­ting in this nov­el? How has the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty there shift­ed since Richard opened his first pharmacy?

7. What role does Jew­ish her­itage play for Robin when she feels so con­flict­ed about her faith? Why do you think she tries so hard to avoid going to Daniel’s fam­i­ly Seder? Do you think her romance with Daniel changes her rela­tion­ship with her faith?

8. Were you sur­prised that Edie’s boyfriend was the one to find her when she final­ly passed? At the end of the chap­ter, one sen­tence reveals a lot about Kenneth’s heart­break: No one was enti­tled to any­thing in his life, least of all love.” Do you agree or dis­agree? What does this tell you about Kenneth’s love life?

9. How does the funer­al change Richard’s feel­ings for Edie? Why do you think he blames the neigh­bors for buy­ing food with­out let­ting him chip in? How has his rela­tion­ship with his com­mu­ni­ty been affect­ed by the divorce? Do you think he’ll be able to repair the dam­age after Edie’s death?

10. The nar­ra­tion often skips ahead in time, so we know which state­ments the char­ac­ters make are true and which ones are not. An exam­ple is p. 268, where Richard says Robin will regret call­ing her­self an orphan, and she doesn’t until he pass­es away. How does this nar­ra­tive style change the sto­ry for you? How do each of the mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives dif­fer in the telling? Did you sym­pa­thize the most with one char­ac­ter above the oth­ers? If so, who?

11. Do you believe the last sen­tence, that the fam­i­ly was close in the end? Why or why not?

Joseph Win­kler is a free­lance writer liv­ing in New York City. He writes for Vol1Brooklyn, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Jew­cy, and oth­er sites. While not writ­ing, Joe is get­ting a Mas­ters in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at City Col­lege. To sup­port his extrav­a­gant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashed­ly babysits. Check out his blog at nocon​ver​sa​tion​left​be​hind​.blogspot​.com.

Discussion Questions