Comic novel serves up love, obesity and b’nai mitzvah

‘The Middlesteins’ (Grand Central Publishing, 275 pp., $24.99)

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

Jami Attenberg’s darkly comic novel “The Middlesteins” (Grand Central Publishing, 275 pp., $24.99) has enjoyed favorable reviews and even a spot on O Magazine’s list of 2012 best books. Attenberg has authored three other works of fiction with varied geography. But with this book, Attenberg returns to her roots in Buffalo Grove, Ill. — by planting her characters, a middle-aged matriarch and her family, northwest of Chicago within a “swirl…of strip, mini-, and mall malls that define the burbs.”

Edie Middlestein lives among 1960s ranch houses a few turns from one of the multi-lane arteries that strike out from the city — with their trove of mega-grocery stores, drive-up banks, hair and nail salons, discounted mattresses, movie multiplexes, chain restaurants and another and still another fast-food fix. Where farmland has been devoured by a symbiosis of subdivisions and rampant commerce is a choice setting for a novel about an incorrigibly fat lady.

Attenberg’s other fiction brims with drunkenness. “The Middlesteins” has its share of boozy (featuring Edie’s grown daughter, Robin) or stoned encounters (Edie’s son Benny and wife Rachelle share joints during end-of-day palavers in the backyard). But this book is mostly driven by Edie’s insatiable appetite.

Despite a long and competent tenure at a law firm (specializing in strip mall development), Edie is covertly forced into retirement because of her obesity. Swathed in a tent-like mink, she is free to spend afternoons indulging in a seven-course Chinese dinner at a strip mall several towns over, with, of course, a couple of fast-food stops along the way.

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Then, after 40 years of marriage, in between surgeries to restore circulation in Edie’s legs, her husband Richard, fed up with his wife’s malice and bile, leaves her. His search for a new relationship — and perchance, a little carnal fulfillment — is a comic revelation about the mechanics of online dating.

Meanwhile, Robin and Rachelle, Edie’s and Richard’s daughter and daughter-in-law, find his “selfishness” unforgiveable. Rachelle frets alternately about her twins’ b’nai mitzvah extravaganza and Edie’s health. “If everyone works together,” Rachelle wants to believe, “Edie has a shot.”

Middlestein. In the Switchboard White Pages for Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, there is not a single one. But the name imparts Yiddish flavor to: Middle-aged in America’s geographical middle. Middle class. Middle-ing affluence. Rachelle’s compulsion about keeping up with the suburban middle. And mainstream-middle problems: a marriage long gone cold, looming old age with a feeling of un-accomplishment, weak bonds with grown children, parents who need parenting, teens texting at temple, a gnawing emptiness that no amount of food can fill.

But why does Edie eat and eat and eat “head down, chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other…stop[ping] for nothing?” Even when her daughter, Robin, is anxiously looking on. Even though Edie has diabetes. Even though Edie seems to be eating herself to death. Smartly, the author sticks to her job as novelist, leaving it to Dr. Oz or Andrew Weil to explain causes and consequences of overeating.

Readers may have more empathy for Edie’s lack of will than Attenberg’s experimental storytelling. Intercutting the novel’s present with backflashes: creative license. “Future-flashes” when, for example, the author tells us that Robin will eventually marry a sweet man and then shortly reward his love with alternating periods of sobriety and debilitating alcoholism: not kosher. These tragic events merit a book of their own rather than a parenthetical, humorous aside in this one.

Justifying her decision to let her brother wait alone while Edie is in surgery, Robin asks, “How many worried children was it going to take to screw in that light bulb anyway?” That is typical of the trendy humor and deft dialogue which makes “The Middlesteins” a funny read, despite the devastating events it describes.

But no one should be surprised to find a little squirmy truth sneaked onto the plate. We like to think that we are in control. But just the same, we do things that are not good for us or the people who love us — without rhyme or reason. Like Edie Middlestein, we are all sometimes — perhaps more than we are comfortable to admit — driven by forces dark, mysterious and maybe…deadly.