THE MIDDLESTEINS - Jame Attenberg
I read Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins in a frenzy- consuming something I innately understood but wanted to learn everything about. It’s strange to think of myself violently inhaling this book because the book itself is about the scariness of self-control, the pleasure and addiction in sensory overload, and the texture of sacrifice. The reader experiences the intoxication of addiction, unable to put down The Middlesteins, while reading about someone who literally can’t stop doing something that makes her feel good but ultimately hurts her. Attenberg has written a novel that so greatly encompasses these ideas and their manifestations in a family that upon closing The Middlesteins, I felt an inner peace. I was relieved someone “got it,” because stubbornness is the less beautiful and sentimental thing The Middlesteins is about. Attenberg turns stubbornness into danger, she both humanizes and vilifies people who are unable to change by showing us their reasons and their selfishness.
Along with the stunning portrait of addiction made physically felt, Attenberg really “gets” families. The Middlesteins resembles The Corrections in this way, her grip on a family’s dynamics and the way individuals can be impacted by the family entity is similar to Franzen’s. There is a delicate thread connecting the spools of each family member in both books; the sons and daughters can unravel if pulled by these threads. In The Middlesteins, the matriarch causes turbulence despite the fact that her husband is disloyal and self-preservationist. His decision to distance himself from his wife’s self-destruction, to save himself, becomes a shock to the family eco-system, despite the slow decay of the bad decisions on his wife’s part. Their children struggle in dealing with the extremes of their parents, a father who struggles to be happy, to live, and a mother who is slowly killing herself with her addiction to food.
The obviousness of everything in Jami Attenberg’s novel doesn’t cheapen the emotional impact. You can see everything coming from a mile away, the story seems inevitable. It’s not boring to know what’s in store for the Middlesteins not because Attenberg’s writing is good, which it is, but because the family is universal, their struggles are everyone’s. In our own ways, we can all identify with the pull of families and the flaws and beauty we inherit from them. And the dawning of this innate understanding is what makes The Middlesteins special.