Monday, December 10, 2012

The Middlesteins by Jamie Attenberg is a Greek Tragedy in Bar Mitzvah clothes

The Middlesteins is a Greek Tragedy in Bar Mitzvah clothes.

This is a funny novel in a sad grotesque kind of way. It's also painfully familiar in the way of family dramas. But this is a barbed comedy, where characters are not just edgy depictions but  instruments of destiny that are very connected to earthly tortures.

It begins with our heroine, Edie, as a little girl. Her mother and father, immigrants from the war-torn old world, are delighted that she can eat what she wants and as much of it as she likes. Isn't that the idea of the land of the free and plentiful? So when little Edie suffers pain, she's of course given food as solace. She grows up equating food with love, the pleasure that never lets you down, until of course, she can't eat.

And that is the crux of this book, Edie's food obsession. Only time she stopped eating was when her father was dying and she was in law school. A svelte 164, she agrees to meet Richard on a blind date, though she's so distraught she can't go to dinner. He's so smitten with her epic personality, copious brains and curvy figure, he suggests they spend the date in the hospital. She appreciates his easy conversation with her difficult father, as well as his copious head of beautiful hair.

Thirty years later, Edie is eating herself into her grave. She's in the hospital with diabetes, pushing 300, and still can't resist fast-food or slow, boxes of cookies, tubs of ice cream-- all give her pleasure in the night; her most reliable demon lover. Richard can't stand to watch. "For his own survival" he bales and the family takes sides. Robin, his tauntly strung  schoolteacher daughter, can't forgive his desertion of Edie in crisis. Benny, his easy-going son, is not as judgmental as his his wife, who exiles Richard from the family.

 No longer can Richard visit his grandchildren, twins Emily and Jonathan, taking dance lessons for their joint b'nai mitzvah celebration. The chapters that follow are told by Benny and Robin, who have different "takes" and temperaments. The Middlesteins  (Hachette Book Group) hopscotches from Richard's and Edie's viewpoints, to their children and granddaughter, Emily to give context to Edie's tragedy.

Does the matriarch have to die?  Can anyone save Edie and should they try?  The daughter-in-law, an obsessive perfectionist, tries vigilance of Edie's fast-food trysts, enforced exercise with her lovely plumpish grand-daughter, her own meals of sauteed Kale. Edie's thin exercise obsessed daughter Robin tries logic and love, trying to think how to save her mother, until she finds her mother's secret hideaway in a strip mall.

There in a Chinese restaurant, her mother has a second chance at love.  The Chef adores the large woman who saved his broken finances and broken heart. Richard, meanwhile, finds the red-haired age appropriate beauty of the Aussie not quite wilderness. When the two marital warriors square off amid the chocolate fountains of the twins' extravaganza, it's not a pretty picture. But it's narrated with some trepidation and wit, by a chorus of their peers at the "waltz" table of the dance-themed event.

Edie is not pitiable, though she's completely unable to live without food, the only consistent comfort of her life. She's obsessed and ecstatic about food. And obsession is built into everyone in this novel, from Richard, a pharmacist, who believes hard work gives success, though he has no evidence but the delusional, Benny's belief in his marriage and the family, though without his pot, he's so stressed with his mother and the twins,  he loses his hair. His wife is a nightmare of perfectionist obsessions, from her tedious vegetarian health meals  to her overly detailed sense of  presentation. Even her daughter Emily, close to her grandmother, has the  family inheritance of dark-eyed wild emotional intensity,

If Edie's lyrical paens bring about her inevitable demise, you don't close this book without pitying her less than the rest of her family. Their obsessions are far less pleasurable!  There's a certain voluptuousness to Jamie Attenberg's description of food that feels more sexy than the sex in this book. Edie's "Fatal Attraction" is at once irresistable, over the top disgusting, and as painfully human as our own. What's grotesque is that like her, it's "larger than life."

And in the end, this is a book about real life's expectations, disappointments, and small satisfactions..  It's a fun fast read, a little embarrassing since it revels in all the graphic fleshly mess we humans try to airbrush out of existence. I read with horror, fascination, and an identification I could not deny.  Read, enjoy and be warned.

S.W.


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