In her 2012 novel The Middlesteins
, Jami Attenberg paints a portrait of a large and somewhat dysfunctional family struggling to adjust to the dissolution of a marriage. The family’s matriarch indulges her passion for food despite her life-threatening diabetes, while the patriarch abandons her just before another in a long series of surgeries. As other family members choose sides and judge who is ultimately at fault for the breakup, the novel considers how to balance what we owe to ourselves with what we owe to those close to us, and how to unite a family in the face of upheaval.
Richard and Edie Middlestein are a sixtyish couple who have been together for thirty years, living in the Chicago suburbs and raising two kids to adulthood. Richard is a pharmacist, while for most of her life, Edie was a brilliant lawyer whose large personality was a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and made her a domineering, though loving, mother. Morbidly obese, Edie suffers from largely self-inflicted diabetes that she makes no effort to control. It is clear that without a dramatic change to the way she approaches eating, Edie will die very soon.
Edie’s passion for, and addiction to, food has controlled the family’s life for decades; her steadily increasing weight forms the structure of the novel. On the one hand, there are long and mouthwatering descriptions of the gluttony that is her “sensual joy.” On the other hand, her appearance has forced her into early retirement from her law practice, and her health is now so debilitated that she is about to undergo a second surgery to put a stent in her leg – a last-ditch effort to avoid amputation.
Unable to cope, Richard leaves Edie just before this second surgery takes place. Their children spend the rest of the novel coming to terms with Richard’s decision, trying to puzzle out who exactly is at fault for this divorce. Did Richard abandon Edie heartlessly because he is too selfish to support an ill wife? Or is Edie the one whose selfish refusal to take even the slightest care of her physical wellbeing is responsible for the split?
Their oldest daughter, thirty-one-year-old teacher Robin, has spent most of her life trying to keep her distance from the situation, both because of her mother’s overbearing style and because Edie’s food obsession has had repercussions in Robin’s own life. After a terrible experience in high school, Robin has never been intimate with someone else. At the same time, she is a functional alcoholic. However, when Richard leaves Edie, Robin decides that the time has come for her to act. Furious with her father, she cuts him out of her life almost completely, as she moves in with her mother in order to help. This spur of the moment decision leads to another positive development: Robin strikes up a relationship with her childhood friend and neighbor Daniel, a nerdy and sensitive man who proves to be the strong support Robin needs.
Robin’s younger brother, Benny, is in many ways her polar opposite. A calm and easy-going pothead, Benny just wants to paper over the explosive emotions of his parents’ lives. He is happily married to Rachelle, who also initially sides with Edie and who refuses to let Richard see his two grandchildren in order to punish him into returning to Edie. Nevertheless, Rachelle and Benny have other things going on in their lives: their twin children are coming of age, and she is in the middle of planning their b'nai mitzvah ceremonies.
A proactive and well-intentioned woman, Rachelle concocts a plan to get Edie back into some semblance of health. The plan involves Edie walking around the track with Robin and Rachelle’s daughter Emily for exercise, Edie consulting an army of experts to find ways to lose weight and overcome food addiction, and a general shakeup of the whole family’s relationship with food. Soon, Rachelle’s dedication to healthier eating starts to grate on Benny, who finds himself losing his hair because the vegetable-heavy diet hasn’t been nutritionally balanced. Emily too rebels against her mother’s anti-junk food stance – she climbs out of her window and then falls and breaks her arm.
Meanwhile, Edie and Richard are the only people who seem to be moving on in the wake of their split. Richard gets together with a British woman who is unlike Edie in several key ways. Although his children don’t approve of his actions, the reader sees a man who can truly fall deeply in love given a reciprocating partner. Edie starts a relationship with Kenneth, the owner of a Chinese restaurant whose failing business she saved with her lawyerly acumen.
At last, the day of the b’nai mitzvah comes. All seems to be going ok, and the family has allowed Richard to see his grandkids’ big day. However, that evening, Kenneth finds Edie dead in her kitchen. At the funeral, Richard is still being treated like a distant acquaintance rather than a family member. Nevertheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note, as Richard bonds with his granddaughter Emily.