What I’m Reading: The Middlesteins

More a collection of linked short stories than a novel, Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” paints a family portrait from a number of different perspectives. Each chapter is told from the POV of a different character, among them matriarch Edie, a “queen among women” whose weight is out of control at more than 300 pounds, estranged husband Richard, angry daughter Robin, resigned son Benny, and controlling daughter-in-law Rachelle (pet peeve: when authors use non-traditional spellings of names, I wish they’d clarify how to pronounce them. I was never sure whether to hear “Rachel” or “Rush-elle”).

The patchwork approach means that we don’t get to spend any great length of time in any one character’s head, so ultimately I had the same issue with The Middlesteins as with “Love Walked In” and “Belong to Me”: I wanted to spend more time with the characters whose struggles I found most compelling (Robin and Edie) and less time with the characters I didn’t like as much (Richard and Rachelle). I would have liked more of an exploration of the reasons for Edie’s destructive behavior and/or more of an arc for Robin, who wrestles with her body image, her faith and her relationship with her boyfriend in the shadow of a tragic loss during her teen years. Either of those women’s stories would have been good enough to stand on their own.

Ultimately, my favorite part of the book was the portrayal of the tight-knit Jewish community in suburban Chicago that the Middlesteins belong to. In a chapter told in first-person plural narration (reminiscent of “The Virgin Suicides”), Attenberg does a wonderful job of sharing an insider’s view of their concerns and priorities. The bonds, both within the family and between the Middlesteins and their neighbors, and how those bonds are tested by the strife and drama of Edie’s failing health and the disintegration of the Middlesteins’ marriage, feel real and poignant. I’ve always been fascinated by communities close enough to self-identify as a “we” (my novel “The Freedom Dreamers” is largely about trying to forge an independent identity while living in close proximity to other people and break away from the emotional dependence inherent in those relationships) and so I loved this glimpse into one, brief though it was.