Edie Middlestein is eating herself to death.
When we first meet Edie she is five years old, “disarmingly solid”, with an appetite for “salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.” Sixty years later, she is morbidly obese and diabetic.
Eating, for Edie, has never been merely about sustenance; it’s about love. Like the offspring of so many immigrant Jews, she was brought up in the belief that “food was made of love, and was what made love.” Now, eating is nothing less than an act of self-love at the tail end of a lifetime of translating acts of food consumption into gestures of affection, whether given or received.
All the sadnesses of late middle age are subsumed in the palliative temptations of multiple Big Macs in the late afternoon or a midnight snack of ice cream and supermarket brownies eaten standing by the open fridge to round off the evening’s blow-out Chinese meal.
Edie’s husband Richard cannot stand it any more. After 30 years of marriage he has left her. She is laid off with insufficient severance pay from her job as a lawyer because of her size. Her children — Robin and Benny — shoulder their own disappointments and despair at their outsize mother.
She is like a mountain blocking the view; no one can see beyond this huge woman, who comes to stand for all their frustrations and sense of inadequacy. Fat is visible, its ugliness unacceptable, and she, Edie, is to blame. She is killing herself through the sensual and emotional fulfilment she finds in food, while her children are determined not to let her, even though, in a family whose vocabulary for disillusion and resentment is far richer than its vocabulary for love, the reader can never be entirely sure why not.
Comparisons have been made with Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 The Corrections, but Jami Attenberg’s novel is without the seam of corrosive bitterness that runs through Franzen’s. Where his tight prose allowed the reader only the occasional, similarly tight, unhappy smile, The Middlesteins is gentler, closer to a comedy of manners, its dark moments alleviated by small epiphanies and, as with the joints sneakily smoked by Benny and his wife Rachelle after their children have gone to bed, snatched moments of joy.
The novel’s set piece, the bnei mitzvah of Benny’s twin children, is as hilarious as it is stressful, but it is Edie’s unexpected discovery of love with the owner of a Chinese restaurant, who feeds her as unquestioningly and unstintingly as her parents did long ago, that reawakens in her a sense of herself as a person capable of being loved. The novel’s ending, unexpectedly cathartic, restores her humanity to her ex-husband and her children, even as it takes place at a shiva, around a table appropriately loaded with the food of consolation.