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.

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