The Middlesteins – Jami Attenberg
I just don’t get it.
This isn’t me being anti-Semitic, I just don’t find maudlin, self-pitying and bitter black comedy stories funny. I also don’t find eating disorders funny. So yep, you can probably guess that I really didn’t enjoy this book.
When I read Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” a few years ago, I could not, for the life of me, understand how it won the Booker Prize.
It was dull…
It had no plot…
It was pure Jewish humour…
Now I’m sure I’d probably love “The Middlesteins” if I ‘got’ the whole Jewish family quirks, the religious rituals and the self-loathing, but being a dyed-in-the-wool half-Irish Catholic boy I just could not, for the life of me, make sense of it – probably in much the same way Jewish people generally don’t “get” the humour of Father Ted!
So I’m probably approaching this at a biased angle, but allow me to elaborate…
I wanted to love “The Middlesteins”, which is a highly-praised story about a large Jewish family living in the suburbs of Chicago, and part of the Waterstones Book Club, but I just couldn’t – primarily because I could not relate to any of the characters whatsoever.
The leading player in this book is Edie, the mother Middlestein, who has been a binge eater since childhood. Clocking in at an impressive 330 pounds, she can’t stop eating, and the more she eats, the more her family try and stop her.
The dad, Richard Middlestein can’t take Edie’s henpecking ways or her eating disorder and so leaves her, after 30 years of marriage, much to the the dismay of their son Benny and daughter Robin.
So as the story unfolds, readers are invited to discover how Robin, Benny and his wife Rachelle cope with the disintegration of the Middlestein marriage, what it means to them, their futures … and their time—because now, who is going to keep Edie from feeding herself to death?
And that’s the book in a nutshell.
You’ll follow this dysfunctional family from start to finish. You’ll be bombarded with descriptions of food and emptiness as Edie keeps shovelling it in, and see why the Middlestein kids are so “messed up”.
But here’s a newsflash for you, Ms Attenberg.
First off, I did not find your story of obesity appealing in the slightest. You do write well, don’t get me wrong, but I detested each and every one of your characters.
The mother Edie steals chips from her grandkids.
The father Richard turns to internet dating and gets, (how do I say this politely?) a “hand shandy” from a woman looking for a sugar daddy….And don’t get me started on the kids themselves!?!?!
I mean just what message were you trying to portray? Gluttony is repulsive? People with eating disorders are control freaks? All families are crazy in their own special ways? Or were you trying to make some super-special point that people look for happiness in food and feel empty even when their bellies are full?
This is one of the most repulsive and downright insensitive portrayals of what it feels like to suffer from an eating disorder. It’s not a story about a family in meltdown, it’s one woman’s attempt to justify her own feelings towards those who overeat, with a Jewish “twist”.
Give this self-indulgent book a wide berth and don’t invest a minute of your time with it. If you want a really good and charming story about obesity and loved ones I cannot recommend Liz Moore’s “Heft” instead.
The Book Boy Rating – 1/5