Grand Central Publishing, 2012
273 pp., 24.99
Lisa Ann Cockrel
Dying for Food
In my parents' basement, inside a box marked "Lisa: Don't Throw Away," is a collection of souvenirs from my travels through high school and college. There's a ticket to an Under the Sea-themed prom, a rough-hewn set of wooden wall hooks in the shape of hearts that I bought from some street kids in Guatemala, and the first wave of wedding invitations. The box also holds a formerly blank book that functioned as my diary during many of those years. It's covered with crushed velvet in a deep shade of indigo that mirrored the Texas sky at night, the one I would lie under on top of the big trampoline in the backyard, alternately staring at the stars and scribbling in the book with the aid of a flashlight.
Tucked inside the front cover of the diary is a faded newspaper clipping that my grandmother sent me sometime in my early teens. I can't remember just when. The details of the article have also faded, but the picture that accompanied it is sharp in my mind's eye. A round young girl of indeterminate age—perhaps 8? or 10? or 12?—with dark hair and blunt bangs looks at the school photographer, a slight smile playing on her lips. The girl's fat cheeks render her eyes sphinxlike, inscrutable. The news was that the girl had died from complications of what appeared to be criminal neglect on the part of her parents, evidenced chiefly by the girl's incredible size; she weighed several hundred pounds.
My grandmother was a complicated woman, but her message to me was simple: lose weight or you will die. You will end up like this girl. I'd been on diets for much of my life, and I was no stranger to this particular admonition, though Grandma had put a particularly fine point on it. On my way to an even six feet, I was already several inches taller than the girl in the picture, was probably half her weight, and was already older. And no one could ever charge my parents with neglect, especially when it came to food, definitely not my grandmother's daughter who fed us carob chip cookies and bought 50-pound bags of whole wheat that she milled herself in order to make the flour for her truly whole wheat bread. The dead girl and I had lived very different lives by most metrics, but she was me. I knew that much. I kept her story close, a friendly specter reminding me of what was at stake as I scribbled in my diary.
Edie Middlestein, the Jewish matriarch at the center of Jami Attenberg's deft novel The Middlesteins, dies because she is fat. And so, as you might imagine, I felt a cold dread when a friend first alerted me to the book and suggested I might want to read it. As a fat person I often eagerly engage social commentary about the "obesity epidemic," but it's also terribly draining to be subject of what often feels like a nation of armchair pathologists.
My dread melted on contact with Attenberg's beautifully wrought story. We meet Edie as a 62-pound five-year-old whose parents—Jews shaped by the particular sorrows of the early 20th century—agreed on only two things: "how to have sex with each other (any way they wanted, no judgment allowed) and how often (nightly, at least), and they agreed that food was made of love, and was what made love, and they could never deny themselves a bite of anything they desired. And if Edie, their beloved, big-eyed, already sharp-witted daughter, was big for her age, it did not matter. Because how could they not feed her?" By the time Edie is quietly taking early retirement, offered because the new partners at her law firm are uncomfortable with her obesity, she weighs more than 300 pounds.
The novel orbits around Edie's girth, her body's unseemly demise providing the story's center of gravity. But each member of this family is a world unto him- or herself, with each chapter featuring a different person's perspective. Via this rotating third-person narrative we're introduced to the interior lives of the Middlesteins of Chicago's northern suburbs: the henpecked husband who leaves his wife in her hour of need to make what he knows is his last play for love; the good-natured son whose care for his mother is, on two particular nights, breathtaking; the perfectionist daughter-in-law who is busy planning the b'nai mitzvah party for their twins and also spying on Edie; the caustic daughter who still harbors an adolescent grief; the granddaughter who is learning about living while her grandmother is dying.
The brilliance of The Middlesteins is on display in the disparities—small and large—in these overlapping narratives. The members of the Middlestein family sometimes succeed but more often fail to understand and care for each other well, and Attenberg captures these small triumphs and quotidian heartbreaks with pitch-perfect prose that skillfully makes a dysfunctional Jewish family in the Chicago suburbs every family everywhere.
Insofar as the protagonist seems to be eating herself to death, The Middlesteins could be heralded as A Novel for Our Time. But this book is both more and less ambitious than that. Food and eating feature prominently, but Edie is seldom reflective on the subject of her own eating habits. Unlike most fat people I know, she has rarely, if ever, applied herself to a diet of any kind, a detail that strains credulity. And the idea that Edie's weight itself is a death sentence is never complicated by the increasingly large number of voices (Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance, being the most recent addition) insisting that just as one can be thin and sick, one can be fat and fit. Edie is 6 feet tall, and her 300 pounds would not put her at death's door without other complicating factors, including a sedentary lifestyle, extraordinary stress, and the poor quality (not just quantity) of her diet. If you're looking for them, these indicators can be seen amid repeated references to Edie's voracious appetite, but most readers won't be looking. For my part, I appreciated a parenthetical remark about a box of fat-free cookies Edie consumes (top ingredient: sugar), hinting at the larger social shifts in food production that affected Edie's choices and their outcomes.
That I was satisfied by such scant suggestion of the multifaceted nature of obesity is testimony to the riveting portrait of family life The Middlesteins paints, one in which Edie's relationship to food is significant, but also clearly situated in her relationships to her dead parents, her husband, and her children. Attenberg doesn't work to make us like any of this motley crew; her gaze is flinty. But she helps us to see that what looks like a choice from the outside often seems like a matter of survival from the inside, and the result is a deeply humane and often humorous story of how the struggle both to live with and to live without our closest relatives shapes us for better and for worse.
Attenberg reveals her sympathies most clearly in her descriptions of food. The pages are tables heavy laden with whitefish, bagels, lox, bright green pickles bursting with vinegar and salt, fast-food hamburgers with their salmon-pink special sauce, scallion pancakes, pork buns, seafood dumplings, and kugel. In one of the most lyrical chapters Kenneth Song, a chef in love with Edie, cooks for his paramour:
He wiped the flour from his hand and onto a towel. The finished noodles rested nearby. Kenneth threw the cumin seeds into a skillet. He thought about adding cinnamon to the dish. If cumin would be good for Edie's health—he knew she was sick, even if she wouldn't tell him the truth; her skin was too pale, her breath too slow—the cinnamon would be good for her passion.
It only took two minutes to roast the seeds. The chilies were chopped, the garlic, too. The crunch of the cumin would be a nice contrast to the tenderness of the lamb, and he knew Edie would enjoy it, the texture, the depth, the surprise of the pop. He mused on the cinnamon some more. How would Edie feel if she knew he was adding an aphrodisiac to her food? He decided all he would be doing was adding a little flame to an already burning fire.
In another departure from the family perspective, the twins' much ballyhooed b'nai mitzvah is experienced through the eyes of a group of Edie and Richard Middlestein's oldest friends. Their perspective on the Shakespearean tragic comedy of that event—complete with Edie throwing food at Richard—is laced with poignant reflection on their own mortality and underscores the nimble grace with which this elliptical tale is told.
I have a habit of identifying—perhaps over-identifying—with characters in the stories I read. Especially when they're fat, as the girl tucked into my diary can testify. But I found The Middlesteins compelling not because I found a kindred spirit in Edie (or any of the Middlesteins, for that matter), but because in these pages I found a spirit so human it made me willing to claim all of these characters as kin. And it left me craving latkes with spiced applesauce. This little book dazzles.
Lisa Ann Cockrel is an editor for Brazos Press and Baker Academic. She writes regularly for CT Movies and is working on a book about obesity, community, and the ethics of incarnation.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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