The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
|The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson
|Summary: A superb novel based around life in an American Jewish family; it's light, very funny, poignant, angry, thought-provoking… In fact everything that people are, but put together with greater perfection.
|Date: February 2013
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail
|External links: Author's website
Edie Middlestein almost has the American dream within her grasp. She trained as a lawyer, has a husband, a daughter who followed her professional footsteps and a son married to an ambitious wife who provided him with two high-achieving children. There are just two flies in the ointment preventing the dream's arrival: 1. Edie is so morbidly obese that she has to undergo surgery; and 2. this is the moment her husband chooses to leave her. Apart from that…
'The Mids' (as the novel is colloquially known on the interweb) is so good it left me marvelling at how American author Jami Attenberg could possibly know so much about human nature, personality types, the universe and everything, not to mention writing. Indeed, stand back; I feel I'm about to rave again.
During the 272 pages we spend with this wonderfully adjective-defying family we travel through their lives in the minds of each family member (and an entire Jewish community simultaneously – and effectively - at one stage). We see their pasts, their presents and tantalising glimpses of their futures without confusion or befuddlement. We know exactly where we are, whom we're with and hear each of their totally individual voices. This isn't a poseur-ish lit fiction; these are the thoughts of richly drawn characters that become real people in front of our eyes.
As thoughts are wont to do, they back-track, switch subject and contradict themselves while providing us with a world of colourful existences. In the process our pre-conceptions are challenged as we're reminded of things we should know but that being judgemental has knocked out of us along the way; for instance reasons for obesity that are more complex and heart breaking than mere greed.
Edie isn't the only person suffering. Her daughter-in-law Rachelle is afflicted by the assumed expectations of her peer group and neighbourhood. Her preparations for her twins' B'nai Mitzvah celebrations are chokingly funny in places, especially when it comes to her choice of their dancing teacher and her lack of understanding when it comes to the artistic world. (If you aren't au fait with Ricky Martin, I suggest you search-engine him to enjoy the full blast of one particular joke.) However, any laughter at the twins' expense sticks in our throats later when…
Jami leaves us to our own conclusions. Is Edie's husband, Richard, sinner or justified? As we watch his sometimes poignant and often hilarious attempts at post-split dating we hear his side of the story and are left to decide.
Despite all the arguing and complex problems the Middlesteins are still family, as demonstrated by son Bennie's pre-op vigils at Edie's and Rachelle's crusader-like attempts to help whether Edie wants her to or not. Even lawyer-daughter Robin who's unable to show love in any traditional form, rallies round with a vulnerable sensitivity that may be deemed as a demonstration of affection.
By the end of our time with the Mids, we're very much aware that we leave our children more than cupboard contents and inherit more from our parents than eye colour. This family took me to places to which I, in their company, willingly went as I realised this is a novel I'll gladly revisit again and again.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to try another quirky family (this time Armenian), we recommend Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg at Amazon.com.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg is in the Top Ten General Fiction Books of 2013.
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