A Jewish family in the Chicago suburbs. The traditional Western Diet. A concept that food equals love, and that there’s never such a thing as too much love. These ideas set the scene for Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins.
The story starts with Edie, the central character in the novel, at 5 years old. Her parents, born too close to hunger too many times, feed her with liverwurst and rye. A solid little child that is nourished to the point of utter fullness, we see Edie’s weight fluctuate and eventually balloon to massive proportions by the end of the book. She requires stents, she has diabetes, she’s going to need a bypass soon. All around her are her family members, trying to figure out how to address the sensitive topic of her astronomical weight gain.
At different times in the book, I found myself identifying with different characters. There’s Robin, Edie’s single daughter, a woman that defied tradition. Her father never “got her,” but he wonders why people need to be “gotten” in the first place. Rachelle, the wife of Edie’s son, Benny, feeds her family quinoa and raw vegetables. She is on the other end of the spectrum – obsessed with healthy eating so much that she restricts her family from occasional greasy pleasures. It’s the kind of strictness that could mutate into disordered eating for their almost b’nai mitzvahed twins, Emily and Josh.
As much as I didn’t want to see it, I felt a strong connection with Edie. Edie – taking food from her kids’ happy meals, filling herself to the brim with Chinese food, making the rounds to several different fast food drive-ins for one meal. Sure, I never lived quite to that point of excess, but there were definitely a couple points in my life where I was operating with blinders on, and didn’t see what effect the food I was eating had on my body. Reading the book, I thought often about the line I try to walk between two obsessions – Rachelle and Edie. Is there a way we can just exist with a diet and be exempt from thinking so much about it?
The book shifts perspectives between characters, and also points in time. We see Edie as a 65 pound 5-year-old, and later, over 300 pounds. A brief stint in her young adulthood puts her at 160 pounds, but never again. Brief periods of intervention – walks around the track or monitored dinners – can’t help her recover from a lifetime of finding joy in as much food as possible. But family has to try anyway, right?
This book offered some truly light-hearted moments, while other times grasping with futility at futures that were never meant to exist. It is beautiful and relatable and has characters that anyone growing up in the suburbs is likely to recognize. The jumping of time also allows for major chunks of life to be summed up in a mere paragraph. It was a quick read, but well worth the time.