Edie Middlestein weighs 332 pounds. Her overeating has brought about an advanced case of diabetes, which has led to arterial disease in her legs. She needs surgery. Also, she’s not a nice person.
Edie is the central but not quite the dominant character in “The Middlesteins,” a hugely enjoyable novel by Jami Attenberg. It’s written in the form of short stories, with one or more devoted to (almost) every member of the family: Edie and her out-of-patience husband, Richard; their children and grandchildren; and various in-laws, lovers and friends.
The event that sets them in motion occurs near the beginning. Richard, after close to 40 years of marriage, decides that he’s had it -- and not just because Edie is literally eating herself to death:
“My wife,” he explains defensively, “who is a very smart woman who has done a lot of good for a lot of people so I can’t totally knock her, my wife made me miserable, she picked at me till I bled on a daily basis.” Note the Yiddish inflections, evidence that the Jewish-American novel is alive and thriving.
We learn a lot about the family through the way each of its members reacts to the impending divorce: acceptance (Edie and Richard’s put-upon son, Benny); cold rage (their malcontent daughter, Robin); disgust (Benny’s controlling wife, Rachelle).
Attenberg has the Tolstoyan gift for creating life on the page. Sometimes all she needs to capture a soul is a couple of sentences. But the pleasure she takes in these people goes beyond compassion.
The Middlesteins are a dysfunctional family, no question about that, and each of them is unappealing (or at best uninteresting) in a different way -- from the outside.
From the inside is a different story. When Attenberg shows us the world through their eyes, they’re not just interesting and sympathetic; they’re a treat to be with. I didn’t want a single one of their narratives to end.
And something even more: Attenberg is generous to them all, and not just in the usual sense that she’s got empathy to bestow. She grants each of them love -- a personal present from the author playing God the beneficent.
Even Edie gets a new boyfriend, a man who relishes watching her eat and, far from recoiling at her girth, adores her enormous breasts. The finest and most beautiful of these gifts -- a real surprise -- arrives on the final page.
So you’re never asked to feel sorry for anyone (not that they don’t feel plenty sorry for themselves), and as a result the book isn’t merely a delight to read: It lifts you up.
As for the prose, every sentence is carefully polished, every word fastened in place. That kind of meticulousness can lead to airlessness, but not here. If “The Middlesteins” never feels spontaneous, it compensates by feeling photographic.
Still, there’s a downside to this kind of perfection, which is that Attenberg doesn’t deal with large themes. A just retort would be that neither does Jane Austen. So I’m not complaining.
I am, however, expressing the desire to see Attenberg take the kind of risks that would allow her to claim a place next to Faulkner and Roth and Pynchon and Franzen -- the big boys with the big ideas. She’s got the instrument. Has she got the nerve?
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)