Monday, November 26, 2012

book review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The basics: The Middlesteins is the story of the Middlestein family: its obese matriarch Edie, her husband Richard, their adult children Robin and Benny, and Benny's wife and children. The family lives in the Chicago suburbs and the narration shifts between these main characters and moves through time non-linearly.

My thoughts: The experience I had reading The Middlesteins is one of my favorites: I knew very little going into it, so I was able to enter the journey of this novel without any preconceptions. Early on, I fell hard for Robin's sharp, raw observations about herself and her world: "Robin looked at Daniel and had the meanest thought of her entire life. He'll do." I was so enamored with the way she sees the world, I was sad when the narration shifted to Benny's wife. Attenberg soon alleviated this pain, however, as I discovered each of the narrators were fascinating. I adore this scene, in which Rachelle outlines all of the lies she's told to her husband:
"She lies once or twice a month about going to matinees during the day by herself because she thinks he might begrudge her that pleasure when he works so hard himself, and this lie necessitates a double lie, one when he asks what she did that day, and two when they go to see a movie she has already seen and she has to pretend she hasn't seen it yet, which has led her husband to wonder if she has lost her sense of humor, or, in a more subtle way he has not been able to name yet, her capacity for joy, because she barely laughs at the jokes she already knows are coming."
Attenberg utilizes the most omniscient form of narration possible, as she alludes to past, present and future simultaneously: "And then there he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but she didn't know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn't know that yet)."

While the character development is the focus of this novel, there is an impressive amount of plot in The Middlesteins. At times it felt like a play, where the pieces and characters were getting into their places for the real action to begin: for the reader to catch up on the past and present and join the future of The Middlesteins.

Favorite passage: "We are allowed to have more than one feeling at once," said Kenneth. "We are human beings, not ants."

The verdict: Jami Attenberg is a beautiful, insightful writer, and The Middlesteins is the contemporary family saga at its best. In less than 300 pages, Attenberg fully forms multiple character-driven narratives into a cohesive, poignant, and moving novel.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 23, 2012
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Middlesteins from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

12 comments:

  1. This ones on my TBR list, so I was thrilled to see that you liked it.

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    1. Diane, I'm surprised it hasn't received more attention. I thought it was excellent!

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  2. Thank you for the review. I hope I can get to this one some day.

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    1. Mystica, I hope you do. This one is work making time for.

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  3. Ha, I like that quote you added about the lies. I read another review that said the mom's character wasn't likeable. Did you feel that way?

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    1. Hmmm. I admit, I'm not one who needs characters to necessarily be likable. I need them to be fully formed humans, which often means they do some things I don't like, but I can relate to them or at least understand their motivations. That being said, I can see how some would think Edie isn't likable, but I think she is. Beneath her stupidity about her health is a vulnerability and understanding I think make it to difficult to dismiss her as unlikeable.

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  4. Those quotes you shared really do point to the brilliance of the writing, and I would love to read this one after hearing what you had to say about it. I hadn't heard much buzz about this one, but then again, I have been away from the bogs for a week or so. Very nice and elegant review. I love the way you described this.

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    1. Zibilee--I think those quotes are divine, and they'll either make you want to read it or ensure you know it's not for you! I'm surprised there hasn't been more buzz about this one. I adored it, and I'm glad I squeezed it in.

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  5. I have not heard anything about this book but I want it -- the quotes you shared are AWESOME -- so deliciously poignant and dark and sad! -- YUM!

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    1. Yes to all of those adjectives! I loved the writing and characterizations in this one. I'm now on a one-woman evangelist tour for Jami Attenberg. I also foolishly thought it was her first novel because I didn't know about her, but it's her fourth!

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  6. So glad you liked this one. I really can't wait to read it. It has been on my radar for a while, but I only recently realized it was such a slight book. I've read lots of reviews wishing it were longer, so that is definitely a good sign.

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    1. I wouldn't necessarily wish it to be longer, as I think that implies there were things left undone or underdone, and I think Attenberg nailed it. I'm also a fan of slimmer novels, so I may be biased:-)

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!