Edie Middlestein’s doctor tells her that she can’t eat for twelve hours before her leg stent surgery. She’s getting the surgery because her legs are so morbidly fat that the blood can’t flow through them. But Edie, stomach rumbling in the middle of the night, can’t stop thinking about a bag of chips in her pantry. She wants them. She wants them now. To hell with what her doctor says! Surely a few chips can’t hurt the surgery that badly. So, Edie sneaks downstairs, careful not to wake her husband…but arrives at the kitchen to see her grown son Benny reading a book at the kitchen counter. “Thirsty, mom?” He says. He’s there because he knows - he knows Edie will come down to eat despite the doctor’s orders. Edie’s grown son had to stay up all night so that his obese mother wouldn’t eat a chip.
This is one of the novel's many arresting scenes which depict a grown woman’s inability to stop eating. When I first heard about Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, I didn’t understand what all of the buzz was about. “Another book about fat people?” I asked. Just because America’s waistline keeps growing doesn’t mean the amount of books about it have to do the same. But when I heard it was funny and that it centered around family dynamics, I figured I’d give it a try.
The Middlesteins centers around Edie Middlestein, matriarch of the Middlesteins, a small Jewish family living in suburban Chicago. Edie has two normal weight children who are mostly adults throughout the novel. Her laid-back and loving son Benny marries whippet-thin perfectionist Rachelle, who becomes obsessed with saving Edie’s life. Rachelle starts stalking Edie to see what she eats everyday. She texts her husband, “She’s at the Superdawg on Milwaukee. 3 hot dogs!!!!” Rachelle’s strange obsession with Edie’s eating begins to manifest itself in her own home, where she begins cooking only tofu and steamed vegetables for herself, her husband and her two kids. Then there is Edie’s single schoolteacher daughter Robin, who Attenberg hints has anorexic tendencies.
Though Attenberg’s prose isn’t anything noteworthy, her insight into the human condition is. While talking about an obese person it’s easy to veer either into cheesy humor or dismissive cruelty. Attenberg tackles it with compassion and grace, while still being able to maintain a sense of humor. “Once Edie had been something close to an intellectual, and she took great joy using her brain to its fullest…Now she was arguing with a two-year-old about French fries,” writes Attenberg. There are some ridiculous things happening in America right now, and this writer captures them quite succinctly.
Benny, stressed out from his wife’s health hysteria, starts losing hair. Tufts of it begin to fall, and soon his family and friends start to notice. He goes to the doctor, who tells him to see a psychiatrist. In a particularly insightful moment, Attenberg describes a conversation between Benny’s daughter, Emily, and her grandmother Edie about her father’s recent balding problem. Edie tells her of her grandfather’s immigration to the United States: “Even after traveling all that way, and even on a diet composed almost exclusively of potato skin, all that for months and months, your great-grandfather still showed up in America with a full head of hair. So I don’t know what the hell is wrong with your father.” Here, I think Attenberg is implicitly saying that Americans have much, and it is this repulsive excess that’s killing us. This great-grandfather lived off of potato skins and was fine. Benny eats $7 bags of macrobiotic seaweed chips and can’t keep the hair on his head.
The Middlesteins, though not brilliantly written, manages to escape most clichés about our obesity problem. Instead, it gives us a witty window into what it’s really like to not be able to stop eating and how this compulsion affects others, especially loved ones.