The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing; 273 pages; $24.99).
If Edie Middlestein, the main character in Jami Attenberg’s hefty, hearty novel The Middlesteins, had a favorite commercial, it would surely be the one about chocolate chip cookies. You know the one. A grandmother bakes cookies for her granddaughter’s soccer team. The girls devour them after their victory and look lovingly at the grandmother in gratitude. One of the girl’s mothers gets an idea to bake her college-age daughter chocolate chip cookies when she is home from school. Mother and daughter bond in the kitchen over the gooey, delicious goodies.
The commercial’s message conveys the same sentiments that Edie learned from her parents as a child. “Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.”
In the minds of Edie’s parents, withholding food from their child, who weighed 62 pounds at age five, was akin to starving her. Edie’s father had starved during his journey from the Ukraine to Chicago years previously and “had never been able to fill himself up since.” Neither Edie’s mother nor her father had the heart to deny Edie food, even though the child is tired all the time from her extra weight.
Even at five, Edie “breathed too heavy, like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal” and “hated taking the stairs; she begged to be carried up the four flights to their apartment, her mother uchhing, her back, the groceries, a bag of books from the library.” Her parents did nothing about Edie’s weight problem. “If Edie, their beloved, big-eyed, already sharp-witted daughter, was big for her age, it did not matter.” They could never refuse her food because that would be like holding back their love. “Because how could they not feed her?”
As Edie grows up, she also grows out. She marries and has children, who grow up and have lives of their own. Food is still a constant in her life, more than a constant really; Edie needs food. For Edie, food provides everyday sustenance and survival, yes, but she uses food as a crutch to cope with the deaths of her parents, her own insecurities and problems, and a painful separation from her husband, Richard. Food thus becomes her solace, her best friend, and her psychiatrist. Food never abandons her; food never complains about her weight; food never tells her she’s not good enough. Doctors warn Edie that her alarming obesity is killing her, but she pays them no mind.
Family members do their best to help Edie. Robin, her daughter, wants her fatherto pay for leaving her mother. Rachelle, Edie’s daughter-in-law, fears Edie may be beyond help when she follows her one day from McDonald’s to Burger King to a Chinese restaurant and watches in horror as Edie gorges herself on these take-outs. When Edie is forced to undergo surgery, it is her son, Benny, who stays up all night making sure his mother does not eat after midnight. Benny knows she cannot resist food, even when it means life or death.
In The Middlesteins, Attenberg puts a real face to our nation’s obesity epidemic. Attenberg’s unflinching portrayal of Edie is wholly empathetic. She lays Edie bare before us and forces us to acknowledge something surprising: Edie’s addiction to food is not that different from all of our fixations, be they shopping, sports, fitness, gambling, sex, alcohol, or drugs. Edie’s obesity is just more noticeable because it is a physical manifestation of her addiction to food. In other words, we can see the evidence of Edie’s overeating while we are often blind-sided by the hidden compulsions of others.
Attenberg’s The Middlesteins is a robust, warm-hearted, and hugely entertaining story of love, family, food, and loss. With elegant and clever prose, Attenberg makes a hot-button political topic a very personal one. The Middlesteins is poignant, enormously big-hearted, and universally appealing.