You don’t have to read Jami Attenberg’s novel The Middlesteins (Hachette) as an allegory about the rise and decline of American Jewry. It is, after all, an intimate family drama about a grotesquely overweight mother and former lawyer, Edie; the husband who leaves her when a lifetime of obsessive eating threatens to kill her; and their children and grandchildren, circling around the wreck of Edie’s life with no clear idea how to save her.
The central theme of the book — perhaps the most buzzed-about Jewish novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated — is love: how we earn it, why we need it, how and why we throw it away. So you can regard Edie’s food addiction as an attempt to fill a hollow left by a loveless marriage, her husband’s abandonment as a last-ditch bid for love by a man facing his own mortality, their children’s self-involvement as a form of self-love (or self-loathing, the other side of the same coin). All these missed connections make one of the final chapters — about a family outsider whose faith in the powers of love is restored — all the more effective, an antidote to the poisoned relationships of the rest of the book.
So does it matter that the Middlesteins are Jewish? The Chicago Jewish milieu is thick, expertly drawn, and very much of the moment. Edie’s daughter-in-law is planning a lavish b’nei mitzva for her twins; its “theme” — all b’nei mitzva parties must have a theme — is “So You Think You Can Dance,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” plays a central role. (Its “Mazel tov!” lyric ensures its place in Jewish weddings and bar mitzvas in perpetuity.)
Before their split, Edie and her husband were classic synagogue empty nesters — part of a crowd of couples who raised kids in the synagogue and feel sidelined now that the kids have grown up and out. A chapter that had me dreading the coming years is narrated by the Middlesteins’ “crowd” in the first-person plural. The graying couples are shunted to the side of the b’nei mitzva party, literally and figuratively halfway out the door.
Attenberg nails the details of the modern bar and bat mitzva — the teary photo montage, the candle-lighting ceremony, the obsessively thought-out centerpieces. But I suppose that’s fish in a barrel. What she really nails are the dynamics of upper-middle-class simhas — the fraught planning, the ungodly expense, and the question that hangs over these ceremonies: Just what are they for, exactly? What social or status (forget religious) function is served by throwing lavish tributes to children who are, let’s face it, too young to have accomplished anything, hitting perhaps the most awkward stages of their lives, and, if not actively resentful of their suddenly useless parents, getting there? And all this for friends and relatives who can’t wait for the dessert cart to appear, so they can politely time their exits?
But this rich satire gives way to allegory in the body, literally, of Edie Middlestein. Edie’s father was an immigrant from Ukraine, who survived starvation and appears to have passed his insatiable hunger on to his daughter. It’s a classic Jewish explanation, or apologia, for the consumer excesses of the second half of the 20th century: Let others moralize about conspicuous consumption and joke about JAPs; we Jews, who did with so little for so long, will never be hungry again.
Of course, our rise, rise, rise into the upper middle class and beyond comes with a cost. “She had lost her way,” Attenberg writes of a younger Edie. “Her father had spent much of his spare time quietly helping immigrants set up new lives for themselves in the suburbs of Chicago. She worked for a law firm that worked almost exclusively for corporations developing shopping plazas all along Dundee Road, from I-94 to Route 53 and beyond, and when they were done with that road, they would probably find another one. Thirty years old, and she had failed. Look at the rubble, the empty fast-food wrappers, the mashed-up plastic toy parts…. [It] had been so long since she’d dared look in a mirror.”
The Jewish Middlesteins are the Jewish Middle Class, safe and secure in the suburbs, in bloated homes, bloated cars, and bloated bodies, estranged from their roots, and literally dying inside. Their children have no respect for religion, whipping out cell phones during Friday night services and shunning the seder, proud of their fierce secularity but really knowing no alternative.
Is all this a little too much? Attenberg is a realist but not a cynic, and she does allow some characters glimmers of redemption, and the possibility of love. Still, you feel by the end of the novel that we’ve come to the end of some sort of line. Is it The End of the Jews (the title of Adam Mansbach’s overlooked 2008 novel, touching on some of the same themes)? Has the Jewish American dream curdled? Has our inability to resist our appetites rotted our souls as well as our arteries?
Attenberg is asking us to look into the mirror, and to recoil at what we see.