In Jami Attenberg’s new novel The Middlesteins, the relationships between members of one suburban Chicago family are riddled with emotional landmines that all seem to link back to one woman: matriarch Edie Middlestein, sixty-something and morbidly obese. The novel centers around the family’s relationships with Edie, her food addiction, and the spiraling health problems which are now threatening her life.
The character of Edie is an unusual protagonist in contemporary American literature: a woman whose health struggles are front and center, whose physical being, in all its inelegant detail, is depicted viscerally on the page. This in itself makes The Middlesteins a notable new fall read, but the ensuing family mishugas makes it a juicy character drama as well.
The action begins with Edie’s husband, Richard, leaving her, protesting that he “couldn’t watch her kill herself anymore.” Now Richard cruises the internet for Chicago’s middle-aged Jewish widows and divorcees while negotiating the new, painful tension between himself and his grown children, who want little to do with him.
One of those children, the ever-brooding Robin, falls into a romantic relationship seemingly against her own will, and the other, Benny, starts balding under the stress of planning his twins’ b’nai mitzvah of the century with his high-strung wife. It’s a tumultuous series of events complete with a blowout b’nai mitzvah party. Mazel tov!