Edie Middlestein has always had an unhealthy relationship with food. Weighing in at well over 300 pounds, she's about to have her second surgery in a year to insert a stint to save her legs from diabetes...and the doctors think it might be time to consider a bypass. Her husband of 40 years has thrown in the towel, leaving her for an IKEA-clad bachelor bad and the over-60 Jewish dating scene. Her adult children are equal parts concerned, resentful, and powerless. Benny is passive, giving in to his wife Rachelle's demands that they structure exercise time for Edie and shield the grandchildren from Richard's amoral ways. Robin's built up enough resentment for multiple lifetimes, furious that her father has abandoned her mother and furious that her mother can't suddenly snap herself out of it.
One of the blurbs on the dust jacket called this the Jewish Corrections
which I suppose is a reasonably fair comparison. The Middlesteins
is trying to depict suburban family dynamics like Franzen did, though on a much smaller scale than the 576-page beast. There's maybe less...ennui here than I remember from Franzen.
Family dynamics novels are a tricky beast for me. I like novels that examine the relatively quiet moments of life -- as opposed to a sensational event -- but there's often so much going on that the characters remain either one-dimensional stereotypes or are just plain unlikable. That wasn't the case here. Edie may be determined to eat herself to death, Richard may be selfish and adulterous, Rachelle may be striving too hard for perfection, and Robin may be a little too unforgiving, but I think Attenberg did a fine job making each of the Middlesteins empathetic and realistic -- even when they were doing unlikable things, no one was an outright "bad guy." I did feel that I didn't get to know each as well as I'd have liked, due to the briefness of the book compared to the large number of characters.
Attenberg's writing was strong, but I wasn't a huge fan of her pacing and tendency to jump through time with a simple line break. That strange flow was occasionally distracting but never enough that I ever wanted to give up. Overall: a strong, layered-yet-flawed story, much like the characters living inside it.