Joint Book Review: The Middlesteins

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Firstly, we need to note that Hoarders treat authors the way Twi-hards treat….  Twi-characters.  (Sorry — wrong terminology?  Didn’t read those.)  What we’re trying to say is that we three get a little star struck. Being able to ask questions of an author is a complete thrill.

On January 21, 2013, with many thanks to our friends over at Typographical Era, the Literary Hoarders had the wonderful opportunity to speak with author Jami Attenberg.  It’s always such a treat to speak with an author about their work, and it’s even more exciting when that author offers some insight regarding sources of inspiration (including amusing antidotes).  We greedily took up over an hour of Jami’s time, peppering her with questions and relishing her musings.  She’s just as intelligent and witty as you might imagine, and we are all anxious for her next title.

Thank you for talking with us, Jami Attenberg – it was a pleasure!

From Goodreads:

For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie’s enormous girth. She’s obsessed with food–thinking about it, eating it–and if she doesn’t stop, she won’t have much longer to live. 

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle– a whippet thin perfectionist– is intent on saving her mother-in-law’s life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children’s spectacular b’nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie’s devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?

Elizabeth’s Review of The Middlesteins: 3.5 stars

What struck me more than anything about this novel was the power that it had to help the reader understand the point of view of each character.  Whether it was Edie, Richard or even the perfectionist Rachelle, there wasn’t a character I encountered that I could not sympathize with in some way.  There was no clear evil in the book; even the food that was plaguing Edie’s days could not be blamed.  What was fascinating, instead, was witnessing this family struggle to deal with one another’s imperfections. Every character had flaws; every character was damaged.  If I wasn’t sadly shaking my head over Edie’s need to endlessly consume empty calories, I was sadly nodding when Richard explained why he simply had to go.  There was no easy answer, and the novel was very honest about not offering a tidy end. Each character’s plight was unique, but those plights were simultaneously shared.  Heartache is transferred to loved ones easily, and sometimes, unwittingly. This is what being in a family is all about.  The Middlesteins were far from perfect, but I think that we can safely assume that this is true of any family.

Penny’s Review of The Middlesteins: 3 stars

I finished this book about a month before we actually got to speak with Jami. My first impressions after completing were resoundingly firm in that Heft, by Liz Moore was by far a better read for me. I do have to say however, that this book has not left my mind. It continued to occupy space up there and rattled around and now, after our fantastic discussion with Jami it continues its space rental! I think what struck me most about this story was that it wasn’t so much a book about the “main” character, Edie, as it was about how her family and those others’ reaction to her extreme obesity. It was also an examination of how we have become to view and treat food in our every day lives. See, I felt that Edie was perfectly content with her life and lifestyle, as she spiraled further and further in to a food-induced death. However, the rest of her family had an extremely difficult time with it, and Attenberg treated us to their varying perspectives and/or the issues they developed while obsessing over Edie. Indeed, the one that stood out the most for me was Edie’s daughter-in-law. She would stalk Edie as she drove from one drive-thru to another and fed her family bland, tasteless and inedible food all due to her abject fear of becoming Edie. This is what has stayed with me the most and was something discussed with Jami during our book club chat. We have grown in to a public that fears food. We can no longer enjoy food as we are told so many “No” or Don’t” or “You Can’t” words about the food we consume. After our conversation with Jami, which was just so completely and totally enjoyable, my original thoughts on the book have shifted from ones that were totally unsatisfied with it, to more of the kind of thoughts where “yeah, I get it. I liked it. It was good.” But….I still would highly recommend you also taking the time to read Heft, by Liz Moore!

Jackie’s Review of The Middlesteins: 3 stars

I am agreeing once again with my esteemed fellow Hoarders! Immediately after reading this book I was left with the thought of “I’ve read better” and “Wow! That was depressing” but after the conversation with Jami Attenberg and the members of the Critical Era Book Club I began to see it in a different light. Speaking about this story made me realize that these Middlestein characters had truly penetrated my psyche. Pot smoking Benny losing his hair from the stress of avoiding speaking to his mother about her chronic eating, bitch-out-loud Robin with her inability to be loved, gluten-free, low-fat Rachelle (who had her own obsessive relationship with food) following her mother-in-law around as she visits drive thru after drive thru, poor love struck Daniel, the door matt of a boyfriend to Robin, Kenneth, Chinese cook extraordinaire who was sweetly in love with Edie because of her size, the collective Jewish family friends who observe the Middlestein family implosion from a distance and the thirteen year old twins, Emily and Josh, who So You Think You Can Dance their way into everyone’s hearts and provide a glimpse of hope for the future generation. Like Penny said, there is something about this family that stays with you long after you have left the Middlesteins’ company.

And, yes! Jami was just such a cool gal! Her insights into her writing process and “flash forward” style was just fascinating and her tales about being treated like a CAPITOL A Author were hilarious! She came across as someone who was genuinely excited about all of the attention she has been deservedly receiving and her enthusiasm and love for her novel was so catchy! Thanks again for joining us and congrats on being featured in the NY Times Sunday Book Review! What an honour!

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