Friday, February 15, 2013

The Middlesteins

Jami Attenberg
Our intelligence is imperfect, surely and newly arisen; the ease with which it can be sweet-talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by our other hardwired propensities--sometimes themselves disguised as the cool light of reason--is worrisome.

- Carl Sagan
Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins opens with a devoted mother battling up four sets of stairs, bags full of food, library books weighing her down, as her exhausted, overweight daughter Edie pleads with her to carry her up. Neighbours open their doors and shrivel the emotionally complicated scene with these words: "It was just that fat kid from 6D." The doors bang shut. With that foreboding dismissal, you realize little Edie is f*cked. 

The novel then leaps ahead many years, centering around Edie's rotting legs and her inability to stop hurting herself through food. Attenberg switches perspectives between Edie, Edie's husband, and Edie's children and their families. The family members' tendency to judge and assume is highly amusing, and it's incredible how little each character actually sees into the larger drama and the smallness of their own concerns. Edie is morbidly obese, acerbic, and smart as hell. Inside her lumbering shell, though, is a timeless tenderness for her father and her own husband, who she nearly pecks to death. Black rotten teeth, hideously swollen legs, she beams love at her grandchildren and her own kids, who mostly turned out OK. I loved the individual takes on their shared reality. It is always humbling and wonderful to be reminded that truth is a many-faceted thing, and may shift and creak from day to day.

Highly recommended.

- Hannah

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