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The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins
Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing
Publish date: 2012-10-31
Review date: 01-04-2013




The Middlesteins are a 21st century Jewish family of adults (with a pair of teen-aged grandchildren) living in and around Chicago.  At the center of the story is the matriarch of the family Edie, who is eating herself to death.  Edie was born to a young Jewish couple living on the 4th floor of an elevatorless apartment in Chicago, and grew into a rotund and opinionated  child who would not be denied the food shel loved.  Food was community, food was conversation, food was comfort and food was love.  
Edie’s father, originally from Kiev, became the perpetual host to a group of men from the synagogue, the University, and to those he’d adopted fresh from Russia.   Their discussions rotated around a table filled with “whitefish and herring, bagels, the lox, the various spreads of sometimes indeterminate meat”, and focused on a mutual obsession with Golda Meir and a strong devotion to Israel.  Meanwhile, Edie’s mother kept busy at the kitchen counter smoking cigarettes and slicing vegetables.  Edie listened and ate.  
Moving forward, we meet Edie's husband Richard, a self made pharmacy owner who – after 30 years of marriage - has chosen to leave Edie in the depths of her struggle with diabetes, and just prior to another life saving medical procedure.  Edie must have a second stent inserted into the vein of her other leg in order to keep the blood flowing properly.   As a result of his choice to leave, Richard becomes ostracized by the family (the female members, anyway), and begins to feel the absence of a type of love he has grown to live without.  The pharmacy reflects the cobwebs, dusty shelves and meager choices Richard has grown accustomed to, yet he will not close the doors.
Edie and Richard have two children Benny and Robin.  Benny is a bit ambivalent regarding concern for his mother’s health and his father’s personal welfare, but his wife Rachelle is not.  Rachelle is intent on saving her mother-in-law while in the midst of planning the perfect b’nai mitzvah party for their twins.  She also insists on healthy, tasteless meals for them all.  After all, Edie is dying from food.  Rachelle's  final declarition comes in a bannishment of Richard.  What kind of man leaves his dying wife of 30 years?   
Robin has spent the past 13 years rejecting all things Jewish.  She has grown into a scornful schoolteacher, living in an apartment in the city, and seeking a spirit scented solace in the bar across the street, sitting side-by-side with her upstairs neighbor Daniel.  Robin is angry at the past. She is angry at the food that replaced the love she desired from her parents.  She is angry that her father has left her and Benny with the daunting task of trying to keep their mother alive, let alone on a path to restored health.   And, on top of all of that, she is beginning to have –oh, wait a minute – feelings for her drinking partner/upstairs neighbor, who is also Jewish and determined (despite his overall meekness) to have her join him to celebrate Seder with his family.  
Jami Attenberg has created a branch of a family who came of age in the shadow of its former hunger-struck and impoverished self seeking freedom and comfort in the cradle of America.  She remains sympathetic to the characters she’s created, despite the most negative or resentful emotion, feeling or statement that any one of these newly complex characters has to offer.  The level of wit and humor is just right, and her attention to the character food plays in the story is what makes the whole thing work.  Though there were times when I felt disdain for some of the characters, in the end I found an appreciation for who they -beneath the weight, the facade, the cloud of perfection or anger - were as individual parts of a whole family.