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
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?