Two years ago obesity overtook smoking as the leading cause of preventable death and disease in America according to a study in the American Journal of Preventable Medicine. Williamsburg, Brooklyn resident and Chicago native Jami Attenberg‘s third novel, The Middlesteins, published yesterday by Grand Central Publishing, explores how one woman’s morbid obesity affects her Jewish-American family and its dynamics. Unfortunately the writing is inconsistent; in my New York Journal of Books review of the book I wrote, “the quality of its prose … is at best serviceable and at worst pedestrian…”
Stylistically The Middlesteins falls between two stools. Sophisticated readers who might otherwise appreciate its “nonlinear structure, multiple perspectives, and occasional page-and-a-half long paragraphs” will find the quality of the writing disappointing, while its ambitious narrative form may intimidate unsophisticated readers who might nonetheless “enjoy its recognizable characters described in a familiar, colloquial idiom.”
The novel conveys family matriarch Edie Middlestein’s love of food but doesn’t explain her lack of portion control. Is the nineteenth bite of a dish more delicious than the fifth or sixth? Doesn’t savoring food preclude devouring it? Moreover someone with discerning taste would not habitually dine at national franchise fast food restaurants as Edie does.
On a personal note, maybe I have trouble understanding Edie’s food addiction because I have neither an addictive personality nor obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and when I do overeat it invariably results in indigestion. Unlike Edie I’m not preoccupied with childhood traumas or adult disappointments, but I understand cognitively that overeating is a way that some unhappy people cope. I had hoped that The Middlesteins would bring me into Edie’s head and help me understand viscerally what makes a compulsive overeater tick, but after reading the novel I am no closer to an emotional understanding of that behavior.
Edie’s daughter and granddaughter are also unhappy people, but the source of their discontentment is unstated other than an inherited temperamental predisposition. The book’s men are more fully developed characters than the women. See my NYJB review for my speculation about why that is the case and for a fuller discussion of the book.