Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins seems an apt book for our times, where the American obesity crisis is at an all-time high and weight loss stories, plans, and hysteria are everywhere. On the surface, the novel is about Edie and the effect her obesity and food addiction has on those around her: her husband, her two grown children, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. But although Edie's unhealthy relationship with food is the crisis which brings the other characters into focus, in the end, The Middlesteins isn't really about food. Instead, it's about the hurts we nurse and the way we use relationships to mend or exacerbate those pains.

Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different character, with the chapters on Edie also going back in time to her pre-obesity crisis days. In doing so, I think Attenberg actually does a better job of bringing out the family member characters than Edie herself. We never quite know why Edie, a smart, compelling lawyer, does what she does, and some of the scenes of her fast-food binging seem almost cliche. Rachelle, Edie's high-strung daughter-in-law, is more fully sketched. She wants to help Edie, but she can't do so without driving her family to the extreme (kale salads every night) in overcompensation. I also found Richard, Edie's husband who abandons her, an interesting character. Much like Gone Girl (though the characters in this book are realistic and not psychopaths), Attenberg uses the alternating chapters to offer different points of view of the same character. You can see why Richard is both sympathetic and a jerk, or why Robin (Edie and Richard's daughter) is both loving and spiteful.

And though I said the book isn't about food, it still offers interesting commentary on our relationship with eating. Though I've always been skinny, in recent months my husband and I have switched to a significantly healthier diet in hopes of establishing long-term healthy habits. Though I'm glad of the change, consciously eating differently has made me much more focused on food than ever before. Throughout the week, I find myself switching between extremes--going all "Rachelle" and insisting on super-healthy vegetable-laden meals (even though I hate quinoa and am only mildly better with kale) and then swinging to an "Edie" and binging on desserts at work. I don't want to be either extreme, but I find it really challenging to be at a happy medium. Attenberg too suggests that there's not one right or wrong way and that our food--and personal--relationships will always be complicated.

The Middlesteins is a very quick read, and I'd recommend it for its smart use of point of view as well as its topical subject matter.

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