The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg is one of the funniest novels of the year. It is also one of the saddest, filled with sad characters doing sad things and meeting sad fates. The female protagonist, an accomplished lawyer in suburban Chicago, is in the process of eating herself to death, alienating her husband and exasperating her two children. “She was a smart woman,” writes Attenberg, “even though she was also so incredibly stupid.” The starred Kirkus review praised this as “a sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life.”
Check out our recent interview with Howard Jacobson about his new novel, 'Zoo Talk.'
Recently, Attenberg spoke with Kirkus about her propensity toward tragicomedy, on-the-nose book titles and the obesity epidemic.
How much of a challenge was it to sustain the balance of tone? Did you envision this as tragicomedy from the start?
I think Jews tend to have a sense of humor about themselves—even in the face of tragedy—so it would have been difficult to write this with a cold, sober attitude. It would have been untrue to the characters. I feel like everything I write is a tragicomedy. It’s my worldview. Laugh and cry until you die. It’s one way to go, anyway.
How about the family’s name—was that there from the start? What does it signify, and why is it the title of the novel?
It was there pretty early on.... I remember asking people if it was too obvious, but everyone seemed to get it and find it amusing. Sometimes it’s OK to be on the nose. They’re a family of Midwestern Jews, and the title says exactly that. Although I do remember—this was just after I sold the book—talking to a literary agent I knew who said to me, “Wow, they’re letting you keep the name?” It might have been too Jewish for her. But it’s just Jewish enough for me.
Obesity has become something of a political issue in recent years. Was your inspiration for the novel topical or social? Was it a symbol for an obsession that goes well beyond the overconsumption of food?
My inspiration was equally social and topical—though at a base level, I was interested in how a person could put her health on the line the way that Edie does. The Middlesteins could have been cigarettes or alcohol or drugs, I suppose, but those vices have less of an immediate physical manifestation. It needed to be something that couldn’t be hidden. There is a certain kind of helplessness that surrounds that from a family’s perspective.
Why did you decide to play hopscotch with the chronology, titling many chapters to indicate your protagonist’s weight fluctuations across the decades, rather than write the narrative in a more linear fashion?
Because I heard it in my head that way? I just find that time-shifting kind of thing so interesting -- I was trying to create suspense for the reader as much as I was for myself. I felt like the information was coming out just when it needed to, even when I was writing it. The reader learns about her just when I did.
Does this novel have a happy ending?
I think it’s as happy as it could possibly be, given the subject matter. I’m always shooting to provide at least a little hope. At least it makes me feel better.