Monday, 9 April 2018

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s novel, The Middlesteins is the story of a family under pressure. When Edie, the larger-than-life matriarch of the family, is told she will die unless she can lose weight, take some exercise and stop overeating, no one can make her listen. For Edie is a serious eater, stuffing food in her mouth at night when everyone has gone to bed, and ordering enormous meals in restaurants.

Edie is very intelligent but not about her health, or her marriage, so it’s no surprise when hubby, Richard, says he’s had enough and wants a divorce after thirty-five years, just when Edie needs him the most. This leaves their daughter, Robin, to pick up the pieces. Robin is appalled, drinks too much and looks set to fall apart herself.

Edie’s son, Benny, helps when he can, but is unable to cope with his mother’s heartbreak. Besides he has a b’nai mitzvah to organise (and pay for). Benny’s wife, Rachelle, runs the twins to dancing lessons so they can shine on their day, but finds the time to plan a rota for managing Edie.

While it begins largely as Edie’s and Robin’s story, much of the narrative eventually shifts to Richard, suddenly expelled from his family and toughing it out alone. But at sixty, he has hopes of finding love again. Just not with Edie. The Middlesteins is not a happy story, but it is a very honest one. Attenberg paints a picture of Jewish family life, the pressures to conform to tradition, the financial expectations and the gossip.

Amid the pain there is a wry wit running through the narrative, with some terrific scenes – Robin and her flatmates setting fire to their furniture after discovering bedbugs, the twins’ break-dancing lessons, Richard’s internet dating – there is so much to enjoy. Attenberg has such a fresh and lively voice and I just breezed through this book, heartbreak and all.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Middlesteins

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