Jami Attenberg delivers a dark comedy about family and food

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Jami Attenberg released her latest novel, “The Middlesteins”, last week, which centers around a woman who cannot stop eating no matter how bad it is for her health (Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing).

It takes a wicked human being to release a book about the dangers of eating too much right before the holiday season when we are all about to be shoving stuffing in our mouths. But that’s just what Jami Attenberg does with her novel, “The Middlesteins.”

The good news is, though she is torturing us, at least Attenberg brings a good book to the table to do it.

“The Middlesteins” is about Edie Middlestein, who cannot stop eating. As a child, Edie was coddled and given all the food she could ever want. Now she has diabetes and, at the novel’s onset, is about to go into her second surgery. Edie’s husband, Richard Middlestein, leaves her after their almost 40 years of marriage because he claims she is killing herself, thus killing him. This leaves Edie in the care of her children who try, often unsuccessfully, to juggle their adult lives with their in-house family drama. The rest of the book unfolds in a Chicago suburb as Edie’s children and grandchildren deal with the fallout.

Although the plot sounds terribly morbid, the novel is actually a tragicomedy, and Attenberg does a great job juggling between the sad and the funny. While Edie’s grandchildren comically struggle to learn to dance for their B’nai Mitzvah, the grandmother goes on an eating bout, eating McDonald’s, Burger King and Chinese in the span of an hour.

The novel jumps between past and present. The past follows Edie from the age of a little girl to her parenthood. The flashbacks cover both events such as the time her mother accidentally dropped tin cans on her hands and when she met her future ex-husband. Together, the flashbacks take up almost half of the novel and work to tell the book’s narrative. Each flashback in the book is given its own chapter, with Edie’s weight at the time as the title. Even by her own author, Edie is defined too often as the number of pounds she weighs.

Attenberg’s strongest point are her characters. Each one is equally complex, equally constructed and equally good and bad. In a novel that is less than 300 pages long, building such a cast is no easy feat. But Attenberg does it by keeping her character count to an appropriate minimum of six important characters. She does not set herself up to fail by making a long list of characters.

For example, Edie’s daughter Robin, is a moody, out-of-touch teacher who does not see love in her future. But after her parents’ divorce, she passionately defends her mother and splits with her father. Then there is daughter-in-law Rachelle, who is simultaneously a pot-smoker, caretaker and stay-at-home mom. After her father-in-law leaves her mother-in-law, Rachelle bans Richard from her home and twins. While normally easy to get along with, she fights furiously for family and defends her mother-in-law, further illustrating her complexity.

Attenberg is also particularly good at delivering zingy one-liners. She proves her command of prose with sentences like “Nowhere was it in her job description as wife and mother and homemaker to be the one to let her mother-in-law know that her teeth were turning to shit” and “Edie was saving the McRib for last, because it was a treat, almost like a dessert sandwich.”

The plot takes a corny turn when Edie begins to fall for the owner of a Chinese restaurant while Richard unknowingly falls for his children’s former babysitter. Besides this, Attenberg concisely keeps her plot to the point.

Finally the ending, while depressing, ties the novel together realistically in a beautiful way. Attenberg does not hold any punches as she tears the reader’s heart apart, but then carefully glues it back together with a small sentimental moment.

“The Middlesteins” is a quick, easy read and goes well with any chilly Saturday afternoon. Just remember: while reading it, try not to think of all that pumpkin pie you’ll be eating in a few weeks.

Printed on Monday, October 29, 2012 as: Dark comedy serves story of family, food