18 Dec 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

#6: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Well, since I already opened the door into weird, barely interesting meta-criticism back when I was talking about my favorite YA books, allow me a few words on readability. For me, as a reader, readability is about language – straightforward, not-too-much prose. The language can be lyrical, it can be noticeably crafted, it can be playful, but it has to be a relatively easy flow from eyeball to brain. Readability is also about story and characters. A story that moves, that surprises. Characters who are intriguing, who behave differently than I expected them to, who get into mischief.

This is all, of course, subjective. Maybe you prefer your language thick and descriptive, your stories comforting in their predictability, or whatever. I like those books too, sometimes. However, I do favor my particular blend of readability, especially when it comes time to decide my favorite reads for the year. Most of my top ten are books that I would consider un-put-downable.

That is how I described Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins when I read it way back in April. I was reading other stuff. I checked out The Middlesteins from the library with interest but without much intent. I picked it up off my shelf on a whim – something to read while I had an after work snack, I think.  But just a few chapters in, I felt that pull, that tug, that You Are Just Going to Sit on the Couch and Read feeling. A great feeling. A special feeling.

The Middlesteins is a multi-generational family saga. Matriarch Edie is newly retired after her employer offers an early pension. Scenes from Edie’s youth reveal she was never a slender child – to Edie’s immigrant parents, food was emotional currency. But after her retirement – and after her husband, Richard, leaves her abruptly – Edie is getting larger and larger. The Middlestein children swoop into help, but naturally, their own problems and issues arise. Benny has potentially troubled children and a perfectionist housewife at home. Robin is a nostalgic, unlucky-in-love type staring down her thirties. Their mother is obese, sick, and strangely unrepentant. Their father is a heartless bastard, leaving his kids to tend to their mother while he dates around. Edie has secrets. Richard has secrets. Robin and Benny and even Benny’s pampered suburban children have secrets. Each character is sympathetic, but also maybe slightly evil toward one another, and much of the drama lies in waiting for betrayals – large or small – to unfold.

The Middlesteins hide from each other, hurt each other, and try to figure out how to stay a family. The narration moves from character to character and from past to present; the story feels like a sprawling, spiraling family drama, each Middlestein’s story folding into another, deepening the family and hereditary landscape. But the book is only 300 pages long – Attenberg’s sharp language and storytelling skills do a lot with just a little.

In conclusion, Attenberg’s The Middlesteins is a fine, short, family drama that satisfies all of my criteria for readability – it is exactly the kind of book I like to read when I read adult contemporary fic. Thus concludes this Five Paragraph Book Review.


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