Fleshing Out A Story

Jami Attenberg on the inspiration behind ‘The Middlesteins.’

01/08/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Edie Middlestein loves fast-food sandwiches, potato chips with onion dip, and Chinese dumplings stuffed with spicy seafood. She likes devil’s-food cookies too, and once, late at night, while everyone at home was sleeping, ate two boxes of them to see what would happen. She didn’t feel a thing.

The 6-foot, 332-pound Edie, a Chicago lawyer, is at the center of Jami Attenberg’s accomplished new novel about a suburban Jewish family, “The Middlesteins” (Grand Central). Food wrappers pile up throughout the narrative, as Edie keeps eating, as though trying to fill up some vast emptiness. After 40 years of marriage, her husband too wants something more and leaves her. That’s when her kids step up to try even harder to save her life.

When the novel opens, Edie weighs in at 62 pounds as a 5-year-old, “a cement block of flesh” who hates to walk and loves salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread. Her immigrant father eats and eats and never gains a pound; he starved while making his way from Ukraine to Chicago and has been trying to make up for that since. And he would carry his only child wherever she wanted to go, on his shoulders, “high up in the sky, as close to God as he could get her.” Later on, when she’s closer to 160 pounds and her father is dying, she meets Richard Middlestein and they marry.

Edie is smart, feisty and a talented lawyer (although she is nudged out of her firm because of her size). She’s the kind of sympathetic person people, even strangers, talk to about their troubles. Attenberg’s characters, including Edie, her son and daughter, daughter-in-law, ex-husband and the old friends from synagogue, the Cohns and Grodsteins and Weinmans and Frankens (always mentioned together and, when given a voice, speak as “we”) seem very familiar without being stereotypes. Even Rachelle, the slender daughter-in-law who is planning every moment of her twins’ b’nai mitzvah celebration, is distinctively quirky.

Attenberg, who says that she was once 50 pounds heavier, gets the details just right and captures emotional and weight fluctuations with tenderness and humor. The cinematic story unfolds through different perspectives, holding out the possibility of unexpected love.

When I asked Attenberg about the inspiration for “The Middlesteins,” she says, “The starting point for me was wanting to write about a character who had hit rock bottom physically, but when I tried to hear what that character was saying, it was instead the family members who were speaking to me. So initially I wanted to write about how family members contend with that situation.

“But then I’ve certainly hit rock bottom in my own life in various ways — it’s a long life we lead, isn’t it? — and have seen others do the same,” she continues. “And I wanted to investigate that moment in one’s life with compassion. Even if the characters in the book aren’t always compassionate to each other, I was writing from that place. I was seeking an understanding. That is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a writer — you can use your art to create an understanding.”

Born in 1971, the author grew up in Buffalo Grove, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago, where she was known as “the kind of girl who wears black a lot.” She now lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, after stints in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Portland and Los Angeles. Along the way she has had a variety of jobs, from bartender to nursing home assistant, while writing. She was an early blogger, starting in 1988, and has been published by a number of zines as well as by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Salon.

“The Middlesteins” is her fourth book and the first to get major attention and hit the bestseller lists. She’s the author of a story collection “Instant Love” and two previous novels, “The Kept Man” and “The Melting Season.”

The author seems proudly Jewish, and has said that she identifies culturally rather than religiously. When asked about this, she replies, “The wonderful thing about being Jewish is that you always have an awareness that you are part of something bigger than just yourself, and it is always waiting for you to access it when you need it. The community, the familiarity, the values, the spiritual component — whatever your entry point, Judaism can be there for you. When I write, I try to examine small, intimate moments of life, but I always have an eye toward the idea that the smaller stories comprise a bigger picture.

“I write because I have to, because I need to,” Attenberg continues, “but also because I feel like I have a responsibility to the world around me.” 

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