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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Middlesteins: Failed Marriage, Family Dysfunction

Richard and Edie Middlestein have been married for nearly 40 years. So when Edie's life-long overeating problem re-emerges, and "causes" Richard to leave, it's no surprise that their two grown children — Robin and Benny — take their mother's side. How could he leave when she most needs his help? That's the set-up for Jami Attenberg's new novel, The Middlesteins.

The question, though — and the reason I loved this novel — is, is it really Richard's fault that the marriage failed? How do you assign blame when such a long marriage comes to an end? Is the issue as black and white as Edie's obesity (she's pushing three-and-a-half-bills) and eating problem, and Richard being a lout? Or is there more below the surface? As Attenberg writes:

“Was he a bold individual making a last grab at happiness? Or a coward who could not contend with fighting for his wife’s life? Was he merely soulless?”
So we spend the novel, alternating between the points of view of the characters, Edie and Richard, Robin and Benny (and Benny's wife Rachelle, and their two children, 12-year-old twins Emily and Josh), trying to decide whose side we, the reader, is on. Is Richard as big a jerk as he initially seems? Or is Edie to share the blame for the failed marriage?

Attenberg is really good at pacing, revealing new pieces of information slowly and surely, and therefore constantly asking the reader to revise opinions based on these new details As more and more is told about Richard and Edie's history, and as we get to see (and feel) more about each of Robin's and Benny's relationships with their parents, what emerges is a portrait of a family on the brink. Robin's and Benny's stories are both fascinating, as well. Their own problems (Robin = single at 30, a bit of a misanthrope, and a drinker; Benny = controlling wife, unrewarding career, kind of a pushover) provide good context (and contrast) for their parents' late-in-life problems. And so will Robin and Benny learn anything from their parents' mistakes?

If you're a fan of realistic, modern, character-driven literary fiction, this is definitely a novel for you. It's a quick read — fewer than 300 pages — but one I really enjoyed. Four stars.


Finally, if you missed it last week, the publisher has generously allowed me to give away three copies of the novel — which is out Oct. 23rd. You can enter by leaving a comment on this post. The deadline is Thursday, 10/11 at midnight EDT.

1 comment:

  1. I DID miss it! Since I generally enjoy every book you review (pander, pander), please add me to your giveaway list if it's not too late. s_bissell@yahoo.com

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