Book review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins


Would you want to spend an extended amount of time with a morbidly obese daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants from the Chicago suburbs by the name of Edie Middlestein who started eating in childhood to soothe all her existential aches and pains and found herself unable to stop?

Or with her put upon, doormat of a pharmacist husband Richard who yielded the power in their relationship almost from the word go to his vivacious yet domineering wife and never quite found a way to claw his way back to an equal partnership?

Or their moody, almost alcoholic daughter Robin who is emotionally estranged and physically separated from her parents and who bonds with her downstairs neighbour and then boyfriend Daniel on one of their many drink-to-get-drunk bar crawls?

Or Benny, their handsome, well-meaning son who got his obsessive-compulsive wife Rachelle pregnant right out of college and who, while happy for much of their marriage, now finds himself besieged by his family on all fronts?

If the decision was taken on those thumbnail descriptions alone, you could be forgiven for backing away as quickly as possible, making all the excuses in the world why the Middlesteins would not be people you would want to spend time with, let along get to know and yes like extremely well.

And yet in the hand of the talented Jami Attenberg (Instant Love, Kept Man and The Melting Season), the Middlesteins are compelling in all the right ways, people who while they frequently make the wrong decisions do so with the very best of intentions, or the best ones they can come up with at the time.

And they are blessedly, wonderfully real, refusing to subscribe to happily-ever-after conventions, the sort of people you can instantly, readily identify because they are just like us.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you are Jewish like the Middlesteins, who are, for the most part, devoted to their faith and all the welcome obligations and blessings that come with it such as a rich, caring community and observances without number, because their story is ultimately about family, about finding your way through life as your own person without losing contact, for better or ill, with the people who defined you in the first place.



And Attenberg is frank about the fact that becoming your own person is not the easiest of paths, frequently thwarted and messed up by the very people who should be speeding you on your way – your family.

Thanks to chapters devoted to each of the characters, which essentially function as stream-of-consciousness monologues on their hopes, dreams, perceptions, desires, feelings, ambitions and the thousand-and-one other things that define us as people, we are given deliciously detailed insight into the members of the Middlesteins clan and those that, mostly happily, come spinning into their orbit.

These internal monologues are wonderfully jumbled and beautifully written, mirroring the tumble of emotions and thoughts that are peoples’ every day stock in trade as they stumble uncertainly through life.

And yet for all that they make perfect sense, underlining that neither life, nor family are as simply or as straight forward as we think them to be.

And that what one person thinks is vitally important, self-evident and blindingly straight forward is not necessarily the whole truth and nothing but the truth to someone else.

Hence while we might think initially, like Rachelle and Benny, and later Robin, that the most obvious thing in the world for Edie should be that she loses all her excessive weight, it becomes evident as we grow to know Edie better than it is not as simple as that.

And we grow to appreciate that this seemingly clearcut path forward is complicated a million times over by the very people who stand lecturing Edie on her failings in life even as they love her and wish fervently that she will heed their calls for her to change her life before it is too late.

The Middlesteins is a delight from start to finish, full to the brim with wisdom, wry humour, and pithy insights about life and family and the frailities and messy complications of both, written with an obvious love of words and their power to vividly bring a story to life.

So well-wrought, and beautifully brought to life are The Middlesteins that even though the family may not be all that appealing at times, and you may shake your head in wonder that these people manage to stay in the same room as each other let alone the same city, you can identify closely with them and are happy to spend as much time as possible with them.

And yes, in the tradition of all deeply insightful and beautifully written books, you mourn parting company with The Middlesteins, which underlines with honesty, blunt humour and dancing prose that family, flawed though it may be, is what defines, messes up, saves, and ultimately give us a meaningful framework to navigate this messy and unpredictable thing we call life.

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