In Goodreads, I have a category called “This might depress you, but it’s worth it” because I tend to read depressing books. Maybe I’m crazy, but I find depth in sadness. I feel like joy is only fully realized when darkness has precluded it. And not necessarily right before, but at least I’ve found that when times are really good, I appreciate it all the more because I know what it’s like to not be so happy.
“The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg fits nicely into this Goodreads category. The book details the journey of a family that includes Edie, a wife, mother, and grandmother who is diabetic and overweight. Despite her conditions, she continues to gorge and not watch her eating habits or blood sugar. Her family wants to help her, but every attempt fails.
This book asks an important question: What do you do when someone you love is in trouble, but he/she does not want help? There are attempts to get Edie to eat healthier and to remind her that she should be healthy so she can enjoy her life. But these attempts and pleas go unconsidered. Edie continues to go to her favorite Chinese food joint.
Perhaps other reviews may focus on the obsession with food depicted in this story as a commentary on American culture. That aspect is certainly present, however, along with asking that important question, what stuck out to me the most was the very realistic portrayal of the family members’ reactions. Whether you hate or love a character in this book, you must give them room to react in their own way since everyone deals with grief, even pre-grief, differently. One is militant in her resolve to get Edie on a strict food and exercise regimen. One is somewhat indifferent. Edie’s grandchildren are a bit too young to fully understand, yet Attenberg captures their naivete and subsequent realization of the gravity of the situation so deftly. Her ability to weave in humor, and even the mundane tasks of real life, in such a way that makes them seem important is truly stunning. It takes hard work to make everyday life resonate.
In addition, I found the book totally quotable. I kept writing in my journal as I read. One quote that I still think about today (perhaps because diabetes runs in my family) occurred when one of the grandchildren muses on her grandmother’s illness. The family is Jewish, and Biblical imagery is sprinkled throughout the text. The granddaughter thinks about the plagues and how that kind of widespread destruction is the definition of biblical to her since it is so grand. After seeing the negative effects Edie’s uncontrolled diabetes has wreaked on her family, the girl thinks, “Diabetes felt biblical.” This, to me, is wonderful writing: nuanced and grounded in the characters’ world.
Attenberg’s writing style is very reminiscent of William Faulkner. The book is arranged in sections, each chapter written to follow a different member of the family. I appreciated the different perspectives because it mirrored the situation so well: Dealing with an ailing family member (and one who’s in denial of her illness) is such a multifaceted situation, and the author captured this effectively through the novel’s structure. Additionally, the writing style of “The Middlesteins” is probably among the best I’ve encountered in a while. It’s accessible, funny (sometimes darkly humorous), and always rings true to life. I’m excited to read more from her.
I highly recommend this book to all readers looking for some well-thought out characters with emotional depth, all of which wrestle with some tough life choices. Also, it’s a good read if you’re willing to delve into some depressing, yet important, subject matter.