This has been a banner year for novels about multigenerational Jewish American families with deep roots in Chicago. I adored Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, an insider’s look into the upper class world of movers and shakers. In Albany Park, Myles Golde recreates the lively life of teenagers growing up poor in 1940s Albany Park. And now, here comes The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s tale of Jews in the middle.
The Middlesteins are an ordinary Jewish family in the suburbs with an extraordinary problem at its center. The mom, Edie, literally can’t stop eating.
“Robin wondered what her mother felt like when she was done. Was it triumph? Eleven seafood dumplings, six scallion pancakes, five pork buns, the pounds of noodles and shrimp and clams and broccoli and chicken. Not that anyone was counting. Was there any guilt? Or did she hope to simply pass out and forget what had just happened?”
Chapter headings track Edie’s weight over the course of her life: 62 pounds, 160 pounds, 210 pounds, 332 pounds. As each family member reacts to Edie’s obsession, we see they are just as messed up as Edie, only their obsessions and desires aren’t as visible on the outside.
Attenburg lures you into the world of this dysfunctional family with a witty and appealing voice. It all seems like so much fun at first–playing with the cliches about Jewish women and their issues with food and weight, knowing references to Chicago landmarks and bars and pizza joints, and fictional characters with exactly the same problems as people you know in real life. A 30-year-old daughter who isn’t married yet, grandkids who text during services, a daughter-in-law taking the organic foods thing too far, a marriage built on lies. As Attenburg takes you deeper into Edie’s family, you realize you care about these characters. You want every member of the family to take control of themselves and hope they get it right in the end.
Attenburg is the first and, so far, only author I ever written to. Several years ago, I came across an essay of hers about the synagogue her family attended in a Chicago suburb. The tone of the essay was so easy going and approachable, I felt sure the author would reply if I wrote a note saying how much I enjoyed her essay. And she did reply, saying she didn’t usually write about Jewish topics. I felt slightly let down, but went on to read and enjoy all her novels.
I can’t say, I told you so, Jami, because I never told her. But I thought it. As The Middlesteins proves, Attenberg knows and understands the world of ordinary middle-class Jews in the Chicago suburbs very, very well and writes about it with insight, compassion and humor.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Price: $14.99 on Amazon