Edie Middlestein weighs 332 pounds. Her overeating has brought about an advanced case of diabetes, which has led to arterial disease in her legs. She needs surgery. Also, she’s not a nice person.
Edie is the central character in “The Middlesteins,” a hugely enjoyable novel by Jami Attenberg. It’s written in the form of short stories, with one or more devoted to (almost) every member of the family: Edie and her out-of-patience husband, Richard; their children and grandchildren; and various in-laws, lovers and friends.
The event that sets them in motion occurs near the beginning. Richard, after close to 40 years of marriage, decides that he’s had it – and not just because Edie is literally eating herself to death.
We learn a lot about the family through the way each of its members reacts to the impending divorce: acceptance (Edie and Richard’s put-upon son, Benny); cold rage (their malcontent daughter, Robin); disgust (Benny’s controlling wife, Rachelle).
Attenberg has the Tolstoyan gift for creating life on the page. Sometimes all she needs to capture a soul is a couple of sentences. But the pleasure she takes in these people goes beyond compassion.
When Attenberg shows us the world through their eyes, they’re not just interesting and sympathetic; they’re a treat to be with. I didn’t want a single one of their narratives to end.
Attenberg is generous to them all; she grants each of them love – a personal present from the author playing God the beneficent.
Even Edie gets a new boyfriend, a man who relishes watching her eat and, far from recoiling at her girth, adores her enormous breasts. The finest and most beautiful of these gifts – a real surprise – arrives on the final page.
Every sentence is carefully polished, every word fastened in place. That kind of meticulousness can lead to airlessness, but not here. If “The Middlesteins” never feels spontaneous, it compensates by feeling photographic.