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The Middlesteins
The Middlesteins
Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing, 2012
273 pp., 24.99

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Lisa Ann Cockrel

Dying for Food

A dazzling family chronicle.

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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.

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