Imagine Jonathan Franzen’s first draft of The Corrections was a lot shorter, a lot simpler and a lot more Jewish, you will have a good idea of what Attenberg’s latest book is like. Look closely and you’ll see that Franzen himself is praising the book on its cover, apparently it had him from its very first pages. High praise indeed. I was not quite so instantly gripped, nor was I ultimately blown away by this, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot.
Edie Middlestein is a huge woman. Married to Richard for more than thirty years, none of them happy, she has eaten herself into morbid obesity, firmly in heart attack and stroke territory. Out of the blue, Richard walks out on his marriage, leaving his two children to pick up the pieces and deal with their mother’s failing health. But of course, his grown up kids have lives and problems all of their own and the Middlesteins soon find themselves cracking along the fault lines that have always been there, they’ve just been ignoring them.
Their pot smoking laid back son Benny is married to screamingly uptight Rachelle. They are preparing for their twins b’nai mitzvah and while Benny seems unfazed by his mother’s food addiction and the doom it spells, Rachelle takes to following her around and keeping a food diary, for all the good that does. Benny’s sister Robin is a spinster who finds her parents mostly intolerable but loves them too. We’ve all been there.
There’s a wonderful disparity between how Edie views her dying marriage and how Richard does. Edie is, essentially, so magnificently awful that you will be grateful on every page that she isn’t YOUR mother or wife (or indeed, any kind of relation). What is so lovely about this book is that there are so many glimpses into their past and into the future of the Middlestein children tucked away in long chapters about enforced trips to synagogues and the like. It makes for some gloriously easy reading (it’s more Anne Tyler than Jonathan Franzen, not that this is a bad thing) and some fabulous characters. My only gripe was the overuse of the word “gotten”. I’m telling myself it was a deliberate choice, but it irked me nonetheless.
So there you are. The Middlesteins won’t change your life, but the Middlestein family are good company. If only because you finish the book and think “man, my family isn’t THAT bad, at least”.