The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg, Serpent’s Tail RRP£11.99/Grand Central RRP$24.99, 288 pages
Edie Middlestein is killing herself. She is 59 years old, weighs more than 300lb and is in the grip of a deadly addiction. She can’t stop gorging on liverwurst and rye bread, Big Macs and apple pies and potato chips.
As her health deteriorates, (“Legs, teeth, heart, blood. Everything about her was collapsing”), Edie’s husband Richard, father of her two grown-up children, leaves the home they share in a Chicago suburb. He can’t take it any more.
The drama in Jami Attenberg’s third novel, The Middlesteins, comes from the impact of Edie’s decay and Richard’s departure on a suburban Jewish family. But food and its effect on the various family members is as important to the novel as any storyline.
The narrative is told by Edie and through several other characters, including her daughter Robin, “the patron saint of former fat girls”, who has replaced comfort food with alcohol.
Meanwhile super-slim Rachelle, Edie’s daughter-in-law, uptight and self-disciplined, is trying to control everyone else’s appetite. She takes the joy out of her book group: “No pastries, no cheese, no crackers. Just crudités.” She stalks Edie, tracking every hot dog consumed and devises regimes for her to follow.
Why has Edie become so huge? We learn that when she was a child – a “luscious” 62lb five-year-old – Edie’s parents indulged her appetite. Food was an expression of their affection: “made of love, and what made love”.
Edie’s father, an immigrant from Ukraine, had almost starved on his journey to Chicago and was subsequently never able to feel full: “At meals, he ate and ate; he was carnal, primal, about food. He staked out territory, leaning forward on the table, one arm resting around his plate, the other dishing the food into his mouth, not stopping to chew or breathe. But he never gained a pound.”
Edie is not a caricature – Attenberg tells us that she used to be passionate, stayed up late campaigning, helped the homeless: “Once Edie had been something close to an intellectual, and she took great joy in using her brain to its fullest.” Instead, she worked in a law firm acting for property developers building shopping malls. “She had failed. Look at the rubble, the empty fast-food wrappers.” Edie is an unsympathetic protagonist – angry yet also curiously devoid of emotion.
Attenberg writes well, with economy and a welcome lack of sentimentality, but after finishing this novel one is left numb – rather like a binge eater feasting and gorging, only to feel empty when it’s all gone.