Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Jennifer Poff Cooper of Christiansburg. She is a graduate student at Hollins University.
Jami Attenberg’s debut novel, “The Middlesteins,” has been a sleeper hit of 2012. Its unique hook is one character’s obsession with food; in fact, the cover is peppered with small pictures of burgers, fries, and sodas. But the novel delves deeper to include the ramifications of this fixation on not only the obese character, but on those around her.
Edie Middlestein is a middle-aged lawyer who eats for comfort, for entertainment, and for no reason at all. She eats lavish meals, orders multiple entrees at restaurants, and snacks in the kitchen in the middle of the night. As a result, she weights over 300 pounds and has developed diabetes and bad knees. The reader enters her life at about the time of her second knee surgery – and at about the time that her husband of 30 years leaves her. Richard says he did not love her anymore, and the main reason seems clear: “He had left her because she was killing herself and killing him, too.”
Benny, Edie’s son, becomes her caretaker. Robin, her daughter, rails against her mother’s condition and, through flashbacks, the reader sees how Robin almost got caught up in the same pattern but changed course because high school bullies made fun of her chubbiness. The skinny daughter-in-law, Rachelle, herself becomes obsessed with healing Edie. Benny and Rachelle’s daughter, Emily, is the rebellious granddaughter who hates her grandfather for breaking up the family. All of these characters are explored in their own chapters, with the reader having the privilege of knowing the characters’ inner thoughts. Some of these thoughts are funny, some are poignant, and some are highly relatable.
However, Attenberg spreads herself too thin by giving each of these interesting characters only a chapter or two and by focusing on peripheral characters in others. Even Edie, central to the novel, is not fully fleshed out. While the reader gets some family background that may explain her current behavior, there is little material about her personality, her career, her parenting, or even her feelings about her impending divorce. Everything about Edie revolves around food. Perhaps that is the point.
With compassion, but not pity, for Edie, Attenberg is successful in calling attention to the obesity epidemic in America. She honestly details the toll it takes not only physically, but also emotionally, on affected people and their families. While Richard comes off as unlikable, possibly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Attenberg raises the ethical question of whether one is obligated to care for a self-destructive partner. If not, who is?
The Jewish motif gives the book a different twist, especially for those of us who live in an area without a large Jewish presence. Some of the traditions were interesting to read about, while other expressions and subjects were simply too foreign.
The book’s biggest weakness is switching time periods. Not only does Attenberg flash back, she also flashes forward and writes in the present tense in the same chapter. This is disconcerting and requires the reader to do some double-takes in order to understand exactly when a particular scene is occurring. In addition, knowing what will happen in the future takes some of the fun out of the book.
Attenberg’s novel, at just under 275 pages, leaves the reader wanting more. For while the food obsession underlies the book, “The Middlesteins” is also a story about family, relationships, love, and commitment – themes to which we can all relate. As such, Attenberg is a storyteller with potential.
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