Lately, I’ve been picking up a lot of novels and putting them down again, unfinished. One I read straight through to the end was The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg.
The Middlesteins got a lot of press a couple of summers ago when it came out. It’s the story of a Jewish family based in the Chicago area. The family’s matriarch is morbidly obese, a lifelong compulsive eater, and needs to get her health on track or she’ll die. The story follows her family as they deal with the consequences.
Although it’s a kind of family saga, The Middlesteins is a compressed kind of saga, in about the 350-page range. It’s told from different points of view, narrating backstory and tracking the main current-day plot, in which Edie’s grandchildren prepare for their b’nai mitzvah and her somewhat estranged unmarried daughter begins to devote herself to her mother’s health, in the wake of Edie’s surgeries and her husband’s filing for divorce. It seems he wants to have a regular life, and feels this is the last moment in his life when he’ll still be young enough to go for it. The sudden breakup of their parents’ marriage gives Edie’s son and daughter a glimpse into the history they’d never known, and leads to the parents’ attempts to find new love.
Edie, as it happens, is a very good lawyer (forced into early retirement because of her weight), a brilliant student up until law school, when she discovered she was only mediocre. She’s not perfect, and in fact has notable character flaws—as does her husband, Richard, and all the other characters. It’s only toward the end of her life that her children begin to learn something about the woman behind the figure they knew only as a mother—a mother who was different from their friends’.
The Middlesteins is not an overtly ambitious novel. It’s not trying to be ”the Great American,” or to make an overt comment on pressing contemporary issues that have to be addressed now or not at all. At five or six hundred pages, it would have been an entirely different book, and quite possibly not a better one; though I, for one (some reviewers disagree, calling the characters uniformly dislikable), would have liked to know more, not only about Edie’s and Richard’s immigrant parents, but about the bulk of the middle of their adult lives. The switches in narrative point of view coincide with chapter breaks (instead of say, sections of a hundred pages or more). The structure has some things in common with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and some with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and combines their already clever innovations very smoothly, and in a clever way. It’s a very good read, and worth thinking about: not small praise.