Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: The Middlesteins

Summary: For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food--thinking about it, eating it--and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle-- a whippet thin perfectionist-- is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?

With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food. -- Grand Central Publishing

As many of you already know, I have a soft spot in my heart for books about dysfunctional families, so I probably would have picked up THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg regardless. However, this book has received so much positive buzz lately (and actually it started way back in June at BEA!) that I knew I had to read it!

THE MIDDLESTEINS is about a Jewish family that lives in Midwest America. The matriarch of the family, Edie, is obsessed with food and morbidly obese; and the entire family is falling apart as a result. Richard, Edie's long-time husband has finally left her right before a critical surgery, Edie's daughter-in-law Rachelle is obsessed with turning around Edie's weight problem, Edie's son Benny just wants everything to be okay again, and Edie's daughter Robin is furious with her dad and unable to understand her mother. All of the family members want Edie to lose the weight, but they realize along the way that there might be factors that neither Edie nor they can control.

I tend to really like smart books about dysfunctional families, so it's not really a surprise how much I adored THE MIDDLESTEINS. I thought this novel provided some extremely smart commentary about family dynamics, marriage, our desire to control everything, and of course our obsession with food. However, it was also quite funny and even heart-warming. In a market where there are already a lot of books similar to THE MIDDLESTEINS, I was very impressed with how this one managed to stand out. It is truly a special book!

I found all of the characters to be incredibly interesting and very complex; however, I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite. All of the characters were highly flawed and I'm not entirely sure I loved any of them except for Edie at times (although she did gross me out with her ability to eat and eat!) What I did love was how they interacted with each other. Their exchanges were representative of the behavior that many family members experience when thrown together during a tragedy, and I thought they demonstrated perfectly how those we love the most can also hurt us the most.

I think it's fairly safe to say that all of the characters in this novel had their fare share of personal issues, albeit none so obvious as Edie's. While I appreciated all of the characters' stories, I was especially intrigued by both Rachelle's and Robin's. By all accounts, Rachelle had it all. She kept herself fit and very thin, raised twins, planned a b'nai mitzvah party, and appeared to be almost perfect. She basically represented the "super moms" who live in suburbia. It would have been extremely easy to make her a caricature; however, I commend Ms. Attenberg for keeping her real and making her much more complex than I first imagined.

And that's one of the main reasons that I liked Robin and her story too. Like Rachelle (and really every character in this novel), Robin was much deeper than she initially seemed. Robin definitely had some relationship baggage (i.e. commitment issues) and she was close to being an alcoholic; and there were times that I thought her behavior bordered on cruel. However, by the end of the novel, I grew to like her and I was impressed with her character's growth.

Another thing I really appreciated about THE MIDDLESTEINS was how the story was presented. The novel begins with a chapter about Edie as a small child. She was already overweight and her mother obviously used food to comfort her. By six years old, Edie had already begun her dangerous obsession with food. Edie's story then continues with chapters titled accordingly to her current weight, and it's interspersed with other chapters about the various family members' lives. I especially enjoyed how the author kept Edie's weight as the constant focus of the family, and I appreciated seeing how they both came together and tore each other apart as a result of their attempts to help her.

Trust me on this one, THE MIDDLESTEINS would make a fantastic book club selection. I wasn't able to find an on-line reading guide, but don't let that deter you from picking this book. The characters are incredibly interesting, and the social commentary on family and marriage is very smart. Some of the themes you might want to explore include parent/child relationships, marital problems, obsession, guilt, addiction, coping strategies, sacrifice, love, and forgiveness.

THE MIDDLESTEINS is just a great read and I highly recommend it to fans of Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Tropper!

I received a copy of THE MIDDLESTEINS at this year's BEA.


Beth F said...

You liked this way more than I did. In fact, everyone liked this way more than I did. I thought it was only okay and I really didn't relate to any of the characters. I know I'm in the very, very small minority.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I prefer to stay away from books about dysfunctional families - my real life family is dysfunctional enough for me!

Kim@Time2Read said...

I'm not sure about this one. But I will probably give it a try, since you likes it so much.

bermudaonion said...

I wonder what it is about families like that that appeals to us? Does it make our own families seem fantastic in comparison? lol This sounds really good to me.