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The Middlesteins: A Novel

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Overview

For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food—thinking about it, eating it—and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for ...

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Overview

For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food—thinking about it, eating it—and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle— a whippet thin perfectionist— is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?

With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.

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Editorial Reviews

Craig Seligman
"Hugely enjoyable . . . Attenberg has the Tolstoyan gift for creating life on the page. Sometimes all she needs to capture a soul is a couple of sentences. But the pleasure she takes in these people goes beyond compassion . . . When Attenberg shows us the world through their eyes, they're not just interesting and sympathetic; they're a treat to be with. I didn't want a single one of their narratives to end. . . . The book isn't merely a delight to read: it lifts you up."
Royal Young
"The Middlesteins is a juicy, delicious, dark smorgasbörd of a novel."
The Washington Post
…Attenberg writes with restraint and just a dash of bitterness. The result is a story that repeatedly tosses off little bursts of wisdom that catch you off guard…[She] is superb at mocking the cliches of middle-class life by giving them the slightest turn to make people suddenly real and wholly sympathetic…Attenberg's success lies in miniatures; she mutes even the few potential moments of conflict, focusing instead on the inaudible repercussions. But with a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, she renders this family's ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting.
—Ron Charles
The New York Times Book Review
…caustic, entertaining and bighearted…Though Edie is undoubtedly at the center of this maelstrom, she is not Attenberg's only, or even primary, subject; as the novel's title suggests, the real subject here is a suburban Jewish family, and how it reacts to the disaster unfolding in its midst…The burning question, which Attenberg explores with patience and sensitivity, is why Edie has embarked on her self-destructive path. The answers themselves aren't surprising…What's remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie's despair.
—Julie Orringer
Publishers Weekly
A panoply of neurotic characters fills Attenberg’s multigenerational novel about a Midwestern Jewish family. Shifting points of view tell the story of the breakup and aftermath of Edie and Richard Middlestein’s nearly 40-year marriage as Edie slowly eats herself to death. Richard and his brilliant but demanding and ever larger wife raised two children. Robin is intense and hostile; Benny lives an idyll with his wife, Rachelle, in the Chicago suburbs, sharing a joint after putting their twins to bed at night. Much of Rachelle’s time is spent assuring that the twins’ b’nai mitzvah extravaganza goes off without a hitch. When complications surrounding Edie’s diabetes precipitate Richard’s filing for divorce, the already tightly wound Rachelle becomes obsessed with the family’s physical and moral health. Soon the affable Benny’s hair is falling out in clumps. Attenberg (Instant Love) makes her characters’ thoughts—Richard and Benny in particular—seem utterly real, and her wry, observational humor often hits sideways rather than head-on. Edie’s overeating, described with great sensuality, will resonate, with only the obstreperousness of all three generations of Middlestein women (granddaughter Emily included) marring this wonderfully messy and layered family portrait. Agent: Douglas Stewart, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct. 23)
Jonathan Franzen
Praise for The Middlesteins:

"The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."

Meg Wolitzer
"The Middlesteins is a tender, sad and funny look at a family and their mother. In fact, it's so readable, it's practically edible."
Abbe Wright

"Expansive heart and sly wit... Throughout this poignant novel, the characters wrestle with two defining questions: What do we owe each other after a life together? What do we owe ourselves?"

Ron Charles
"With a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, [Attenberg] renders this family's ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting... Attenberg is superb at mocking the cliches of middle-class life by giving them the slightest turn to make people suddenly real and wholly sympathetic."
Donna Seaman
"Deftly comedic and acutely sensitive, Jami Attenberg confronts our profound hunger for meaning and love in The Middlesteins.... [This book] generates disturbing, hilarious and tender revelations."
Carmela Ciuraru
"The most authentic, endearing fictional portrait of a family in recent memory. . . There is no page of this novel without compassion, empathy, humor and restraint."
Elissa Schappell
"Jami Attenberg's comic-tragic portrait of The Middlesteins, a quirky midwestern Jewish family collapsing under burdens of betrayal, desire, and obesity, is delish."
Stefan Fleischer
"[A] remarkable feat.... Clear-eyed funny and truthful and deeply moving, especially in the killer-punch of its ending... Refined, economical and beautifully crafted."
Lauren Groff
"Jami Attenberg has written a brilliant novel in The Middlesteins, as blazing, ferocious, and great-hearted as anything I've read. For anyone who has ever known heartbreak, the terrible love of a family, or a passion so deep you think it'll kill you, The Middlesteins will blow you away."
J. Courtney Sullivan
"Jami Attenberg has a gift for making you sympathize with each and every one of her characters. The result is a rich family portrait that's sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and gripping all the way through. The Middlesteins are every bit as complex and contradictory as your family, or mine. I'm still thinking about them long after I turned the final page."
Aryn Kyle
"Jami Attenberg writes with startling honesty and haunting compassion about characters caught between desire and obligation. Blunt and beautifully written,The Middlesteins peels back the layers of one family's struggle to hold together even as its members fall apart, examining the commitments and betrayals, the guilt and grievances, the wounds and recoveries. Told with great hope and humor, this is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance, the roles we yearn to escape, and the bonds that prove unbreakable. It's a wonderful book."
Jenna Blum
"I couldn't help absolutely devouring The Middlesteins. This smorgasbord of a book about food, family, love, sex, and loss is like the Jewish The Corrections, yet menschier and with a heart--and it's hilarious!"
Kate Christensen
"The Middlesteins is a truly original American novel, at once topical and universally timeless. Jami Attenberg has created a Midwestern Jewish family who are quintessentially familiar but fiercely, mordantly idiosyncratic. This novel will make you laugh, cry, cringe in recognition, and crave lamb-cumin noodles. This is a stunningly wonderful book."
Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Attenberg writes with all the humor and vigor of Philip Roth but with the warmth and heart of Anne Tyler. The energy comes from Attenberg's exuberant prose, which makes this novel a joy to read.... The Middlesteins is literature at its finest, asking the tough, unanswerable questions about our modern life."
Stefan Merrill Block
"The Middlesteins, the novel, is great literature: in lucid and lustrous prose, Jami Attenberg tells a flawlessly paced, profound story that is equally intimate and universal. And the Middlesteins, the family, are great company: warm, tragic, funny and so deeply, complexly, entirely human that I could almost swear I grew up down the street from them. I read Attenberg's book as voraciously as Edie Middlestein downs her surreptitious feasts, and now I'm insatiable for more from this brilliant author."
From the Publisher
"Jami Attenberg has a gift for making you sympathize with each and every one of her characters. The result is a rich family portrait that's sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and gripping all the way through. The Middlesteins are every bit as complex and contradictory as your family, or mine. I'm still thinking about them long after I turned the final page."—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Commencement and Maine

"Jami Attenberg writes with startling honesty and haunting compassion about characters caught between desire and obligation. Blunt and beautifully written,The Middlesteins peels back the layers of one family's struggle to hold together even as its members fall apart, examining the commitments and betrayals, the guilt and grievances, the wounds and recoveries. Told with great hope and humor, this is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance, the roles we yearn to escape, and the bonds that prove unbreakable. It's a wonderful book."—Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals

"The Middlesteins, the novel, is great literature: in lucid and lustrous prose, Jami Attenberg tells a flawlessly paced, profound story that is equally intimate and universal. And the Middlesteins, the family, are great company: warm, tragic, funny and so deeply, complexly, entirely human that I could almost swear I grew up down the street from them. I read Attenberg's book as voraciously as Edie Middlestein downs her surreptitious feasts, and now I'm insatiable for more from this brilliant author."—Stefan Merrill Block, author of The Storm at the Door and The Story of Forgetting

S. Kirk Walsh
"Vibrant . . . Thanks to Attenberg's sure-handed prose, this agile narrative swiftly moves around in time and perspectives . . . Attenberg evokes memorable moments of authentic sadness and tenderness while thoughtfully and comically examining the question of what we inherit from our families. In the case of the Middlesteins, it is many things, including their sometimes-enduring love for each other."
Susannah Cahalan
"This gem of a book is swift, moving and brutally honest, but it has as family-centric moral at its heart: Without family, we are nothing."
Yvonne Zipp
"Funny, compassionate tragicomedy...notable for the nimble way it combines humor and pathos. Attenberg can be wry and sharply funny, but there's a tenderness in her portrayal of her outsized main character and her family."
Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)
"A smart novel that tackles big issues."
Chicago Tribune
A smart novel that tackles big issues.
Library Journal
Edie Middlestein is digging her grave with her teeth, as the saying goes. Previously a successful Chicago attorney, Edie has sought comfort in food all her life; she craves fattening treats the way an alcoholic craves booze. Now that she is over 60 and over 300 pounds, her partners have pretty much forced early retirement on her. Edie is also facing a second surgery on her legs. Her husband, Richard, has had enough. He leaves his wife after nearly 40 years of marriage, to the shock of their easygoing son, Benny, and the anger of their difficult daughter, Robin. Despite this sad scenario, Attenberg (The Kept Man) finds ample comic moments in this wry tale about an unraveling marriage. She has a great ear for dialog, and the novel is perfectly paced. Her characters are all believable, if not always sympathetic, though Edie's romance with a Chinese restaurant owner seems improbable. VERDICT Attenberg seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy in this warm and engaging family saga of love and loss.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Kirkus Reviews
From Attenberg (The Melting Season, 2010, etc.), the deeply satisfying story of a Chicago family coming apart at the seams and weaving together at the same time. Former lawyer Edie Middlestein has always been a large presence, brilliant as a lawyer, loving as a mother, shrewish as a wife. Since early childhood, food has been her private if not secret passion. The novel is organized according to Edie's fluctuations in weight, and the descriptions of her sensual joy in the gluttony that may be killing her are often mouthwatering. Sixty-ish Edie is obese and ravaged by diabetes. When her pharmacist husband, Richard, leaves her shortly before she's scheduled for an operation, Edie's children are outraged. Thirty-one-year-old teacher Robin is a fearful near alcoholic who has avoided intimacy since a disastrous experience in high school. Ironically, her new self-proclaimed hatred of her father opens her to the possibility of a relationship with her geeky neighbor Daniel, a gentle soul with a hidden but strong spine, not unlike Robin's older brother Benny. Benny is happily married to Rachelle, a woman of fierce protectiveness who initially denies Richard all access to his grandchildren to punish him for his desertion. Is Richard a heartless, selfish man, or is he correct that Edie left him years before he left her? A little of both. All these characters feel more than one emotion at a time, and all are more than they first seem. Edie is an overbearing matriarch in her family, but a lovable saint to the owner of her favorite Chinese restaurant. Richard is a schlemiel, except that he is capable of real love. While the novel focuses intensely on each member of the family, it also offers a panoramic, more broadly humorous, verging-on-caricature view of the Midwestern Jewish suburbia in which the Middlesteins are immersed, from the shopping centers to the synagogues. But as the Middlesteins and their friends move back and forth in time, their lives take on increasing depth individually and together. A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455507207
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 287
  • Sales rank: 279,625
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg is the author of a story collection, Instant Love, and two novels, The Kept Man and The Melting Season. She has contributed essays and criticism to The New York Times, Print, Nylon, Time Out New York, BookForum, Nerve, and many other publications. She lives in New York and is originally from Chicago.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 52 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(13)

4 Star

(15)

3 Star

(9)

2 Star

(9)

1 Star

(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 53 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2012

    Annonymous

    Was kind of confusing! The book is onlyv 201 pages not worth the 12.99 you pay! I wish I had known this before I purchased it!

    8 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2012

    A Good Read

    An excellent read because of the way the author developed the characters and told their stories in and out of the present tense. Each one was a real person, with good, bad, weak, and strong traits that wove a family tale. The eating disorder of Edie, the central character, was facintating to read about, and i loved the Chinese chef.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 27, 2012

    Middlesteins

    It really didn't do it for me. The characters were not very well developed even though they were interesting and in the hands of someone else, they could have become compelling. It really annoyed me that the author would mention things that were going to happen later in the book (the death of a major character) but instead of a subtle foreshadowing, it pretty much just made the event fall flat when it did happen. Not a fan.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2013

    Interesting charachters.....

    With a unique storyline. Also loved reading about a non-Newyork middle aged Jewish community. Addresses the toll morbid obesity can take on a marriage and whether the pursuit of happiness is worth the cost.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2012

    so so

    modestly entertaining. Classic ethnic angst and neuroses

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I'm a sucker for books about families with all their layers of l

    I'm a sucker for books about families with all their layers of love, regret, loss, angst. I always hope for forgiveness and redemption to be part of the equation.
    I wasn't disappointed when I chose THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg.

    Richard Middlestein has fallen out of love with his wife, Edie. Largely, he thinks, because of her steady weight gain and her obsession with food. So, he leaves her.

    Their two children and two grandchildren seem to understand the split from Edie's viewpoint. His daughter-in-law, Rachelle, forbids Richard from seeing his grandchildren.

    As the grandchildren prepare for their b'nai mitzvah, Richard negotiates with his son to allow him back into the lives of the children.
    Rachelle's preparation for the extravagant party after the ritual includes some worries about having Richard and Edie in the same place, at the same time.

    Was the marriage over long before Richard left Edie?

    Do the two of them get back together or go on with new people in their lives?

    Does the family ever completely embrace Richard again? All these questions are waiting for your discovery.

    The Jewish life is so rich in its customs, traditions, and celebrations that it always makes a good story.

    I loved this book and gave it four stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2013

    Amazing

    This was a wonderful read! I enjoyed every minute of it!

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  • Posted September 4, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Womp womp.  This book fell right in the middle for me, no pun in

    Womp womp.  This book fell right in the middle for me, no pun intended.

    The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg is a story about a woman, Edie Middlestein, who is killing herself through the process of overeating.  Her husband, Richard, decides to leave her.  The responsibilities of Edie now fall onto the kids (who are not so perfect), and all the blame onto Richard.

    I liked the concept of the story, but it really was just a dysfunctional family story.  I expected too much from the obesity angle, thinking it would provide a little more depth to the novel.

    I wasn't a huge fan of this book, but Jonathan Franzen was.  He said, "The Mdidlesteins has me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling." 

    Do you enjoy reading dysfunctional family stories?

    Thanks for reading,

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2013

    Horrible.

    I cannot imagine why their was so much buzz about this book. I didn't find it funny AT ALL. It was horrible, and horribly depressing. An obese woman eating herself to death? Unhappy, hateful people who constantly complain about everything? Not funny. Read Carl Hiassen if you want funny. This was not, and by the ratings, I see I'm not alone in my opinions.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2013

    Short, easy read

    Short book with great characters. Enjoyable vacation read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    Interesting dysfunctional family. Timely topic...obesity, famil

    Interesting dysfunctional family. Timely topic...obesity, family relations, contemporary lifestyles. A quick read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013

    Horrible

    Boring

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  • Posted March 8, 2013

    An interesting book as far as family dynamics are concerned. Well written.

    I found this book interesting, especially in developing the characters and actions of the main characters, EXCEPT for the main character, Edie. There are alot of observations from others expressed, but very little on what motivates Edie to behave how she does, especially with her food addiction and lack of concern with her medical problems. Her relationship with her husband left many unanswered questions for me as well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2013

    Meh.

    Really Jewish, but surprisingly really dull.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    The characters did not resonate with me and I kept feeling that

    The characters did not resonate with me and I kept feeling that it was antisemitic to portray so many ugly stereotypes. Very disappointing and lacking in nuance or dimension. Edie met us as an obese child and nothing changed.

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  • Posted January 11, 2013

    OK

    Not as good as I expected it to be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2013

    Depressing characters, non-existent plot

    From the start I didn't care for this author's style of writing. It reminded me of someone giving a long lecture in a monotone voice. Characters are unpleasant and poorly developed. Once I've started a book it's rare that I don't finish it. I stopped reading this one just over halfway through.

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  • Posted December 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I expected something different from this book. From all the bits

    I expected something different from this book. From all the bits and pieces I read on various sites I thought this would be more of a humorous book. I found it quite depressing. The hardest part for me is that the author didn’t make me understand why Edie had an eating disorder in the first place. Given that she had this before she married, it couldn’t be blamed on her husband or her kids. I did like where she went with how her eating had such an effect on her husband, children, and grandchildren over the years. Overall I thought it a decent enough read, I just lacked connection to any of the characters.

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  • Posted December 14, 2012

    Recommend

    Good read. Typical family drama with real-life issues. Would recommend this highly for book club discussion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2012

    Terrible book

    This book was terrible. Couldn't get in to the characters at all. There were no connections to these people. Scattered and annoying. I wish i hadn't wasted my time.

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