Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: "The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg

There's a lot of truth to the adage, "Food is life." Food can nourish, nurture, soothe, bring people together, even keep problems temporarily at bay. Those are just a few reasons that so many cultures and religions have festive meals as part of their traditions. (I've joked through the years during Jewish holidays that nearly every one is built around the tenet, "They tried to kill us, we defeated them, let's eat.")

For Edie Middlestein, food comforts, heals, brings her pleasure, and satisfies her like nothing else. From a young age, raised in a Jewish household full of scholars and immigrants, she was surrounded by an overabundance of love and food. And food fueled her ambitions to be a stellar student through high school and college, into a law career.

What food couldn't do, however, was fill the emotional void she felt following the death of her parents, or help exacerbate her marriage to pharmacist Richard. So she ate. And ate. And ate some more, even as she raised two children, easy-going Benny and emotional Robin.

But now Edie weighs more than 300 pounds. Doctors have told her if she doesn't stop eating she'll die. When Richard leaves her, tired of their angry, bitter, empty marriage and Edie's addiction to food, her family rallies around her to try and save her. Benny, now a successful, pot-smoking family man, tries to care for Edie as best he can, while Robin, who blames her father for everything, vacillates between being nurturing and struggling with her own emotional issues. And Benny's perfectionist wife, Rachelle, tries to take control over Edie's life as long as it doesn't interfere with her planning her twins' b'nai mitzvah extravaganza or her need to control her family's eating habits.

Alternating between past and present (with some allusion to future events), the book follows Edie at different points in her life and her addiction to food, and also alternates between Edie's story and Richard, Benny, Robin, and Rachelle's. The Middlesteins is a funny, sensitive, and emotionally evocative look at a family in crisis, where food is an easy target of blame.

As a former personal chef and someone obsessed with cooking, talking about, and eating food, I can certainly identify with some of Edie's feelings, although not to her level of extremity. I thought Jami Attenberg did a phenomenal job with this book and her look at the emotional and physical effects of an addiction to food. She created some very vivid characters and she treated them well, because she could have turned this into a caricature. Although some of the shifts in narration and the mentions of what happens to the characters in the future distracted me a bit from time to time, I really enjoyed this book, and it made me think quite a bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment