Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins

Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins

A sudden separation and a woman’s health crisis force a family showdown in Jami Attenberg’s third novel, her most expansive yet, as Edie Middlestein faces life without her husband, and her children debate whether to take sides. Attenberg’s previous novel, The Melting Season, opens with a woman picking up and heading to Vegas, leaving her crisis-ridden family, whose problems she deems unfixable. Richard Middlestein, by contrast, doesn’t go further than the nearest IKEA, but his decision to leave his wife coinciding with her second diabetic surgery temporarily makes him a family pariah. After 30 years of marriage, Richard agonizes over his departure, but his inability to explain his choice removes him further from his angry relatives. In his absence, daughter Robin and daughter-in-law Rachelle feud over the best way to steer Edie, whose doctor warns she might be headed for a bypass if she doesn’t lose weight, while her pot-smoking son Benny prefers to let his mother come to terms with her grief.

Attenberg’s perspective shifts emphasize the complex bonds keeping the Middlesteins from disintegrating as they take turns describing the months leading up to Edie’s grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah, where the estranged couple finally meets up again. In one bravado chapter, “Seating Chart,” Attenberg uses first-person plural as a window into the Middlesteins’ agony, as seen through their friends and neighbors. None of these chapters furnish the whole story of the Middlestein marriage, but together, they agilely depict the family as the totemic center of their upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, and Edie and Richard as the Everycouple whose dissolution suggests a dangerous undercurrent of dissatisfaction that could pull the neighborhood under. 

Though Edie Middlestein is the catalyst to the family crisis, she isn’t just a figurehead; in fact, she’s one of the most sympathetic of her clan. Her problems are depicted with humor and tenderness. In flashbacks woven throughout the novel along with a few flash-forwards, which provide a longer view of the family’s issues, Edie’s compulsive eating problem develops from a comforting bite on the apartment stairs to the point where she takes refuge in a strip-mall Chinese restaurant, where her children can’t scold her. Displaying how her family’s concern for her health is knotted up in their own insecurities and fears balances what seems like her willful choice to give up on them, while their equally flawed coping skills led them to avoid confronting her until it’s too late. The Middlesteins calls back to Richard Ford’s untidy domestic dramas, which spill out into the streets beyond. In this book, the promise of the nuclear family isn’t enough to hold the center, but it appeals to the view that community can bind tighter than blood.

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