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Saturday, October 10, 2015

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Author treats obesity with light-hearted sensitivity

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Edie Middlestein is grossly overweight, diabetic and about to have her second stent surgery. She is also in danger of needing a bypass surgery.

If that’s not enough, after 30 years of marriage, her husband Richard has given up on her and is about to leave her. Their two adult children, Robin and Benny, are worried about what to do. Because one thing is clear: Edie is slowly eating herself to death.

So begins The Middlesteins (Grand Central), the delightful third novel by New York-based writer Jami Attenberg.

Each chapter shifts the perspective from one of the family members to another, but the focus is always the gluttonous matriarch, Edie.

Benny is an easy-going pot smoker who has a pair of teenage twins he and his wife, Rachelle, conceived during a drunken fling in the bathroom of a frat house on their graduation day.

Robin is a single teacher who is having an affair with her “I-guess-he’s-my-boyfriend,” Daniel, who lives in the apartment below hers.

Edie was always fat. She weighed 62 pounds at age five. Her immigrant mother always knew she was overweight, but how could she not feed her daughter? If it could stop her from crying, then what was wrong with it, she thought? She would also drop her groceries to carry her up the apartment stairs, because Edie was incapable of doing it herself.

Edie grew up in a house where her father and his friends would sit together talking about Golda Meir and their donations to Israel.

In high school, weighing over 200 pounds, Edie ate on behalf of Golda recovering from cancer. She ate in tribute to Israel. But most importantly, she ate because she loved to eat.

She became a lawyer but was given early retirement, and a “not unfair amount of money” to keep quiet about the fact that she was being let go because of her embarrassing (for the firm) weight.

Even the night before her surgery, she couldn’t help herself if she went down to the kitchen for just a little sandwich.

She would go to McDonald’s and order a rib sandwich and a Big Mac, but thoughtfully took out the middle slice of bread because she heard from Weight Watchers that half the battle was the bread.

Her husband, Richard, was the owner of a small chain of pharmacies, Middlestein pharmacies. It was a successful business until the ’90s when his loyal Jewish clientele moved or died and the younger ones had no ties to him or the community.

He begins meeting women online right after leaving his wife (he bookmarks a Jewish dating site on his computer). At first, he tries younger women, but when that never advances beyond first dates, he changes his parameters to women who are more age appropriate, a motley collection of widows and divorcees, and one woman, a “half-hooker” who is looking for him to “be my daddy.”

His children take their mother’s side during the separation and are disappointed that their father left their mother at such a crucial time. He is especially hurt that he is shut out from visiting his twin grandchildren.

Benny’s wife, Rachelle, takes the lead in trying to save Edie, by making her healthy meals and encouraging Benny to visit her every day.

But Rachelle’s care borders on the obsessive as she takes to following her mother-in-law around like an undercover cop, taking note of where and how often she’s eating. “She’s at the Superdairy – 3 hot dogs!!!” she would email or text her husband.

Robin, who was fat herself as a child before she consciously started to lose weight in high school, is especially bitter at her father for leaving instead of caring for her mother. She understands that Edie needs to stop eating right away, but is unable to convince her.

Although the main story line begins with news of Edie and Richard’s separation and leads up to the twins’ bnei mitzvah, the timeline is otherwise quite fluid, with several flashbacks and even a few flash-forwards.

The author takes the brave and unusual step of writing parts of the book in the future tense, and one chapter, about the aforementioned bnei mitzvah, is written  in the rare first-person plural, as we see the event from the points of view of all the old Jewish friends of the family.

The novel seems to be asking who’s to blame for Edie’s obesity? Is it her mother for feeding her out of love and kindness? Is it her husband who only felt disgust and chose to leave her for thinner women? Is it her children who stood by, not intervening until it was too late? What about her friends and neighbours who watched her eat but didn’t think it was their place to intervene? Or was it Edie herself who was smart enough to understand the consequences of her habit?

The Middlesteins is a light-hearted telling of a tragic story. Calling it a comedy might be an exaggeration. It is, after all, a sad tale and the main protagonist is dying. But Attenberg does a good job of tackling this heavy subject with a light, humorous, yet compassionate and sensitive touch. It does not get weighted down (yes, pun intended) with serious melodrama.

Readers will likely enjoy this slice-of-life novel.

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