This is a strange admission from someone who actively sought out and purchased this novel, but I expected not to like The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. I had a prejudice against it for a few batty reasons having to do with surface similarities–in terms of the title, book design, and hype–to two other novels I read and hated. The Middlesteins was everywhere when it first came out and so I was curious enough to buy it, but definitely imagined sitting down to write a post with a very different tone than the one I am about to write.
This book, in my opinion, was incredible. I loved it. It wasn’t suspenseful, but I could barely put it down only because I didn’t want to stop reading the prose and about the characters. Attenberg writes chapters from the third person points of view of many different members of the same family–the obese matriarch, Edie, her estranged, much-maligned husband, Richard, her difficult daughter Robin, her sweet son Benny, his health-obsessed wife Rachelle, their twins, about to be b’nai mitzvahed, the collective voice of Edie and Richard’s couple-friends, the proprietor of a Chinese food restaurant that plays a complicated role in Edie’s life, Edie’s mother, and maybe there is even someone else I’m forgetting.
Often, jumping around between characters creates a feeling of incompleteness for me, in which I expect to return to someone’s point of view but never get to experience their particular voice again. It can be something I really dislike about reading novels, as opposed to short stories; I wish the writer would keep the world and the focus tighter rather than spin out to explore so many different threads. But, here it really worked. I think it was a matter of balance. Attenberg was able to switch between different time periods–these chapters focused on Edie and were titled with her weight during the given moment–as wells as various locales and characters because she used her space wisely. She kept certain themes at the forefront–love, food, the distance between who the characters thought they would be and who they actually became–for each person. Whether these ideas surfaced through sections about Benny’s unexpected balding, Rachelle’s fascination with her twins’ dance teacher or Richard’s sudden hunger at the end of the novel, she created rich, full, wistful scenes–often filled with comedy–that added to the ones before and after without feeling incomplete themselves.
Another device Attenberg successfully employs, that I think is so difficult to pull off, is the flash-forward. I use flash-forwards sometimes as a cheat when I don’t know how to resolve something in the moment. When I read flash-forwards in other people’s work, I often feel like they’re using them in the same way I do. The most notable exception to that is Jennifer Egan’s amazing flash-forward in the “Safari” section of A Visit from the Goon Squad, what I think is one of the most exquisitely devastating literary moments in history. I wouldn’t say that the brief glimpses into the future that are peppered throughout The Middlesteins approach that level of genius, but they do cast current events in a different, more meaningful light. And then, when she soars out of the present at the end of the novel, projecting from one funeral to another, and then backtracks to summarize the years in between, she offers the reader a few transcendent pages. I think so many writers would be afraid to write this kind of ending. There is a lovely note of redemption for nearly everyone, but no one’s story ends happily. (I don’t think this is a spoiler–it would be strange to expect happiness from this book). I was crying as I finished the book–not just tearing up, but truly crying.
To me, The Middlesteins is the perfect summer novel. It isn’t the kind of book I wanted to consume in small doses, but in long hours sitting in the sun. It is super easy to read, but there isn’t a lazy sentence in the book. I hope that the press surrounding this book entices rather than deters legions of readers. I can’t wait for what Jamie Attenberg does next.