One American Jewish Family's Struggle With Obesity

‘The Middlesteins’ is the rare novel that puts obesity at the very center of its story. It’s an audacious move, and when it works, it is a very compelling book.

The Middlesteins, By Jami Attenberg. Grand Central Publishing,
288 pages, $25

For all of fiction’s preoccupation with marginal and struggling figures, and in spite of the growing social concern over obesity, there have been lamentably few novels that explore the lives and experiences of obese people. Enter Edie Middlestein, stubborn, smart and 60ish, the heroine of Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins.”

Spanning more than 50 years in suburban Chicago, “The Middlesteins” starts with a glimpse of Edie at age 5, as she engages in a standoff with her mother over a hunk of rye bread. Edie was a child for whom “food was made of love, and love was made of food,” and we see how this equivalency and the related food addiction dogs Edie through law school, motherhood and grandmotherhood, both in her troubled relationships with her children and with her (newly estranged) husband. Edie is fat and growing fatter, and the novel chronicles her and her family’s divergent responses to her increasingly severe health problems. She is resigned to her dire condition; her husband, Richard, “tired of watching her kill herself, and taking him with her piece by piece,” has given up on her entirely; and their children desperately want her to change her ways.

Those children are Robin, a perennially glum 30-something schoolteacher whose exasperating diffidence is reminiscent of the protagonist of Attenberg’s second novel, “The Kept Man”; and Benny, a dull and prematurely balding man married to his college sweetheart, a high-strung Pilates-and-nose-job of a woman who is obsessed with both saving her mother-in-law’s life and planning a glitzy suburban bar mitzvah for her and Benny’s twin daughter and son. This branch of the family joins a cast of characters so uneven that some like Edie seem to be crying out for more stage time while others including these four would be better off slipping back into the wings, unannounced. As it is, the chapters told from their perspectives feel like distractions from the heart of the novel though it takes a while to figure out what exactly that heart is.

There are two chapters in particular, however, that bob up from the sea of shifting perspectives and grab us by the throats. And these sections, both told from Edie’s perspective, are heartrending examinations of the havoc that addiction can wreak on family life. They demonstrate that the book’s other sections are not just disorienting, but actually represent a real loss for the novel. For when we can hear the heart of “The Middlesteins” beating, we are swiftly drawn into its pull.

Vast quantities of food

In one of these chapters, a much younger Edie takes Robin and Benny, ages 2 and 6, to McDonald’s. She halfheartedly tries to connect with them while preoccupied with the emotional solace of the vast quantities of food she’s stacked on her tray. The line into her psychic life is direct: “In theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull,” and Attenberg’s rendering of the scene movingly delivers the depths of struggle and emotion underneath. Flat attempts at engaging with her children (“Don’t you guys have anything of interest to say?”; “You ate a strawberry. You like strawberries”) interrupt long paragraphs of painful introspection, self-flagellation and contemplation of her Big Macs and McRibs. When Benny, between bites, presents Edie with a bead necklace he made for her, she thinks, “I’m a shit.” When he tells her she looks pretty, she thinks that she, “did not look pretty. ... She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.” She finds herself contemplating Weight Watchers before she tries and fails, yet again, to focus on her children. In a total non sequitur, she turns to her toddler daughter and asks: “What about you?”

This scene, and the chapter in which it is embedded, are so incisive that when the novel resumes its kaleidoscopic tour through uninspired and uninspiring point-of-view experimentation, ranging, inexplicably, from the lawn boy to the collective first-person “we” of Richard and Edie’s busybody friends, it does more to hamper our access to the core of the novel than to broaden the book’s emotional field.

Worldly pleasures

In a later section, a very chubby teenage Robin has just learned of the tragic death of a friend, and begins fighting, cruelly, against her closeness with her mother. “Don’t you get sick of ... being fat?” Robin asks Edie, while they binge on a package of cookies.

“‘Come on, Mom. You and me. We’re fat.’

‘I don’t like that word,’ whispered Edie. ‘You should hear what the kids say to me at school. ...They’d say it to you, too, but like ten times worse. Because you’re fatter than I am. So there’s more to say about you.’

‘I’m sorry I disappoint you,’ said Edie, crushed and crumbled, letting herself feel that way, letting herself sink down low. ‘You don’t disappoint me,’ said Robin. ‘You disappoint yourself.’”

After Robin vomits their joylessly consumed snack all over the table, the narrator who elsewhere tends toward the twee understatedly carries on: “After that day, Robin grew thin quickly.” She joins the track team and soon “looked just like all the other children in the neighborhood, while Edie remained exactly the same, alone at the kitchen table, surrounded by all her worldly pleasures.”

We cannot help but simultaneously root for Robin and hope for her social-success mission to fail for we see that there is not room in the tight confines of this mother-daughter relationship for both Robin’s weight loss and their closeness. This mother and daughter, like so many mothers and daughters, depend on each other for so much emotional support, and for so much of their identities, that Robin’s bid for independence cannot help but read as a betrayal. But despite the vital friction that results from putting Robin and Edie together on the page, these two chapters are lone spots of vitality in a book that often cedes the spotlight to characters and relationships that get far more stage time than they deserve.

This novel wants to be about more than just one family’s trials and tribulations. Even “Middlestein,” the family’s Jewish-sounding name, seems to plead the case for relevance, presenting the family as a sort of cultural mean: They are meant to represent something about America, something about suburbia, something about American Jews. But why spell it out? The Middlesteins, like all fictional creations, are necessarily representatives of their respective milieus, and the novel’s stabs at social commentary feel forced.

A two-paragraph history of Jews in America fleshes out the early days of Richard and Evie’s marriage: The couple, who are not portrayed as spiritual or as religiously observant, were among “the other lonely Jews” who were “looking for an affordable new home and an easy commute,” and Richard, whose motivations do not entirely cohere, “managed to pull a minyan together” that met in the back of his pharmacy. But then the community changed, people died, and the narrator spells out that this is an American suburb: “Keep up with the Walgreens and the Targets and the Kmarts and the Walmarts, or get out, Mr. Middlestein. Get out.”

Between the broad strokes of this history, Richard’s unconvincing religious motives, the periodic pithy remarks (“Pray for Israel while you’re at it. ... Everyone always should be praying for Israel”) and the chapter-long lapse into the caricatured “we” of Edie and Richard’s friends at the bnai mitzvah celebration whose incongruously schmaltzy Yiddish-inflected impression of the “new (new-ish, anyway)” Hilton (“We had driven by it hundreds of times on the way to the health club, but why would we ever visit it? We already have homes, why would we sleep somewhere else?”) feels a generation off we get the sense of a narration tasked with more than it can elegantly handle, and of a Jewishness that is more imagined than felt.

‘Edie at 332 pounds’

Perhaps the most curious, and inexplicable, of the novel’s narrative choices is the way it deals with the fact of Edie’s food addiction. Though Edie’s emotional life is too often sidelined in favor of those of lesser characters, when she is present, her chapter headings tell us just how much of her is there. There’s Edie at 162 pounds, at 202 pounds, at 241 pounds, and then steadily upward. “Edie, 332,” announces the final chapter told from her perspective.

Is the text seeking to formally enact the offense of seeing people first and foremost for their weight? Not even a righteously indignant reader can feign moral superiority, for we, too, see Edie primarily for her weight. (We are given no choice.) And yet, it’s a curious decision for a sympathetic narrative does it really matter whether Edie’s weight is in the 200s or the lower 300s? These questionable chapter titles are not the only instance in which the characterization of Edie crosses the thin line between sympathetic and pathetic. In a restaurant scene unfortunately told from the granddaughter’s point-of-view, rather than that of Edie or Robin, Edie “whispered” her protest to Robin’s attempt to reform her eating habits: “I like it here. These are my friends. You can’t make me give up my friends.” Elsewhere, this character seems more likely to just tell her daughter to back off a tack that would have also upped the dramatic tension.

The novel might have been better served by more consistent attention to character, but what “The Middlesteins” gets right is admirable. The swiftness of its narrative pacing and momentum are instructive, its characters’ desires are generally quite clear, and the fact of Edie’s food addiction is worth noting and, in a certain light, celebrating. What was the last American novel that foregrounded the ailing body at all, and not just the ailing mind? The attention that “The Middlesteins” pays to addiction and obesity is itself admirable, even though the emotional consequences could have been more effectively conveyed.

Ilana Sichel is a writer, editor and translator based in New York.

Michael Sharkey