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Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Middlesteins: A Novel

I have had Jami Attenberg's novel The Middlesteins on my TBR bookshelf for a few years now, and I decided to pick it up and dive in recently. I got it at the first Book Expo I went to, and on one hand I'm sorry I waited so long to read it, and on the other, I'm glad it came into my life when it did.

Richard Middlestein has left his wife, Edie, just as she is diagnosed with life-threatening health conditions due to her obesity. He just can't take it anymore. Their children, golden child Benny and sourpuss Robin, do what they can to stand by their parents while working through issues of their own. Benny's twins are about to have their b'nai mitzvah, Robin is newly in love, and Edie won't stop eating. Rachelle, Benny's wife, has made it her life's mission to save Edie from herself while banning Richard from their home. Family dynamics are delicate, as they often are, and each person has issues that are intertwined with everyone else. Ultimately, they are all responsible for the issues that plague them all.

I was pleasantly surprised by how taken I was with this novel. Fat shaming is prevalent in our culture, and research has consistently found that bigger people are not just judged more harshly than thinner people, but also face dislike and often disgust. Attenberg created Edie with such ethos and pathos that she is a women who comes alive on the page with such love and care. She is a full-bodied character (pun intended) with a strong character arc, and it's clear that Attenberg takes pride in her character development. Robin as well could have been just horrible, but in the author's hands, she is surly and broken but so sympathetic, as anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can understand. Even Richard was sympathetic, and really, when you read the description of the man you might envision that he was a horrible man, but the deeper you get into this book, the more you see that relationships are not black and white. Break ups are not easy and clean, and rarely is just one party at fault. Richard is a grown man who makes a decision to live his best life while still yearning for the love he once had with Edie. With that love gone, however, Richard must move on.

The back and forth of this book through time was also a plus on my side. Attenberg did a great job of being clear about which time period we were in, and she inserted the reminisces into the past to bolster her character development in the present. I felt that I deeply understood Edie based on the flashbacks. We are who we are because of where we came from, and Edie is no different, even if she is fictional. Her reliance on food as more than just a comfort mechanism is deep and rooted in her childhood as well as her young adulthood. (I would also be lying if I said that I haven't had a few cravings for Chinese food after reading this book...) It is the defining element of everyone, from her husband and her children to her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, all the way to the newest love of her life. I got that, on a super deep level, and I really loved her as well as this story.

I am looking forward to picking up more of Attenberg's work; I have another book of hers on my TBR shelf, so I'm aiming for sooner rather than later. The crafting that she does with her characters is astounding and well worth the read. 

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