THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central/Hatchet), 272 pages, $27.99 cloth. Rating: NNN
Jami Attenberg strikes an unusual balance in The Middlesteins: her third novel is both entertaining and very distressing.
It's the story of a woman who can't stop eating, even though her addiction could be killing her. It's definitely wreaking havoc on the rest of her family. Edie's daughter, Robin, is moody and borderline alcoholic; her laid-back son, Benjamin, has married rake-thin Rachelle, now preoccupied with hosting the perfect b'nai mitzvah for their twins; and her guilt-ridden husband, Robert, totally turned off by her girth, has dumped her.
Attenberg gets deep inside the psyche of someone obsessed with food. Edie can single-handedly clean up five plates of Chinese food with a lip-smacking flourish, is wont to go to three fast food joints one after the other and can't resist the fridge even the night before her major surgery. That's the distressing part.
But she's a fully realized character, an intelligent woman, a skilled lawyer, a caring mother living in a Chicago suburb that Attenberg portrays almost lovingly.
Each chapter is told from a different characters' point of view. It's a clever strategy that gets you to empathize with everyone. You can see why Robert can't last another minute with Edie, why Benjamin is ready to cut him some slack, and why Robin's turning to drink.
But the chapter set at the b'nai mitzvah party and told from the perspective of the couples closest to the Middlesteins fails. For one thing, its broadly satiric tone doesn't match that of the rest of the book. And for another, it doesn't successfully explain one of the narrative's nagging issues: where the hell are Edie's friends?
And Attenberg hasn't quite mastered the art of finishing. She opts for a risky premise but tries to take the edge off in the end.
Still, there's a ton of talent evident in this tale well told.