Each dysfunctional family is unhappy in its own way. There’s a blurb on the cover of The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg from Jonathan Franzen brings to mind the fraught Jewish families of his novels – rootless adult children and discontented aging parents – but The Middlesteins isn’t a sprawling novel like The Corrections or Freedom. Leaving readers to form their own thoughts about wider societal themes, The Middlesteins stays tightly focused on the Middlestein family members, who are suddenly divided over wife/mother/grandmother Edie’s staggering lifetime weight gain and her husband Richard’s decision at age sixty to leave the marriage.
Sections of the book take readers back into the past (Edie as a little girl, Edie and Richard as parents of young children) and the author flashes readers an occasional glimpse of the future beyond the confines of the novel, but every scenario, each choice of path, resonates with sadness and regret.
The Middlesteins escape their own discontentment in different ways – drinking, working long hours, secret pot-smoking, etc. Edie’s preferred way is eating – binging on fast food until her huge size becomes the embodiment of the weight of her unhappiness. Her life-threatening obesity, her unrecognizable body, finally can’t be ignored, explained away, or dismissed by her family any longer. Each Middlestein has to choose: the path of avoidance (escaping, like Richard) or of trying to help Edie (who doesn’t want to be helped.) Somehow Edie, though beloved by others in her community, has become an outsider in her own family – so foreign in her ways, so far gone down her path, that she seems beyond their reach. Edie’s unignorable obesity finally forces the Middlesteins to confront the serious dysfunction in the family and recognize how each of them has been padding themselves against being hurt.
The Middlesteins has received great reviews and is being nominated for fiction prizes. It’s definitely worth reading, but is depressing, even by the standards of literary fiction. The story weighed me down as I read it. I set it aside for a long time before finishing it, but it made an impression. Jami Attenberg is young, and has already been writing for a long time; The Middlesteins is the author’s third novel. She makes the Middlesteins’ unhappiness seem so universal – the breadth and depth of it so ordinary – that it’s easy for a reader to believe that this vast discontentment and disconnection is lurking beneath the surface of every suburban family.
Grand Central, 2012
Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library.