Serpent’s Tail, £11.99

Review: The Middlesteins, By Jami Attenberg

Horns of a heavyweight dilemma

Edie and Richard Middlestein live in an unremarkable Chicago suburb, are parents to two grown-up children (Benny and Robin), and well-established members of their community. Not exactly successful, but not unsuccessful either. Edie, smart and fierce, is an ex-lawyer; Richard runs a pharmacy, one of the first Jewish businesses in the neighbourhood. And now, after thirty-something years of marriage, Edie is eating herself to death. She has passed the 300lb mark, her health is coming apart, her vast body is a calamity waiting to happen.

So Richard leaves her. He has a lease on another apartment, which he's recently been furnishing on clandestine trips to the local Ikea. What follows is a sharp-eyed tale of family relationships and family consequences. Will Richard find love again on an internet dating site? Will Edie? Will their children ever forgive their father? That last one is really the big question hanging over this book: is Richard a selfish bastard who has heartlessly abandoned his sick wife after decades of marriage, or a poor soul who had been struggling to bear it for so long and finally, broken, has given up? Should we be sympathetic or judgemental? It's a delicate line that Jami Attenberg negotiates brilliantly.

The Middlesteins are a family of characters whom you come to know in just the way you know real people – their little habits, little irrationalities and inconsistencies, little details of speech that you don't even realise are familiar until, well, there they are. At the heart of it all is Edie, a woman short on self-control, for whom food is an escape. It's a sad pleasure, but not a new one. When the story begins, "little" Edie Herzen is only five, and already weighs 62lb, "a cement block of flesh". (Sympathetic our narrator may be; sentimental she is not.) As the story proceeds, the centre of gravity shifts from Edie to Richard. By the end of the book, their grandchildren have come into focus, too; the potent ending belongs at least in part to them.

The Middlesteins has a perfectly pitched narrative voice – a way with loaded phrases and a know-it-all wit that can be pointed, playful or devastating. (Benny's well-meaning wife is described sitting outside "shivering like a small, precious, expensive dog".) But the book is so warm and well-observed that, despite any mockery, the destinies of these flawed, strong and fragile people come to matter to us deeply.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'