The Middlesteins

A Novel


By Jami Attenberg

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For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie’s enormous girth. She’s obsessed with food–thinking about it, eating it–and if she doesn’t stop, she won’t have much longer to live.

When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle– a whippet thin perfectionist– is intent on saving her mother-in-law’s life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children’s spectacular b’nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie’s devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?

With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.


Edie, 62 Pounds

HOW COULD SHE not feed their daughter?

Little Edie Herzen, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh. She breathed too heavy, like someone's gassy old uncle after a meal. She hated taking the stairs; she begged to be carried up the four flights to their apartment, her mother uchhing, her back, the groceries, a bag of books from the library.

"I'm tired," said Edie.

"We're all tired," said her mother. "Come on, help me out here." She handed Edie the bag of books. "You picked these out, you carry them."

Her mother, not so thin herself. Nearly six feet tall, with a powerhouse of a body, she was a lioness who had a shimmer and a roar to her thick, majestic self. She believed she was a queen among women. Still, she was damp, and she had a headache, and the stairs weren't fun, she agreed.

Her husband, Edie's father, always took the stairs two at once, in a hurry to get to the next place. He was tall, with a thick head of dark, spongy hair, and had long, lanky, pale limbs, and his chest was so thin it was practically translucent, his ribs protruding, watery blue veins threaded throughout. After they made love, she would lazily watch the skin that covered his heart bob up and down, fast, slower, slow.

At meals, he ate and ate; he was carnal, primal, about food. He staked out territory, leaning forward on the table, one arm resting around his plate, the other dishing the food into his mouth, not stopping to chew or breathe. But he never gained a pound. He had starved on his long journey from Ukraine to Chicago eight years before, and had never been able to fill himself up since.

When you looked at all the things in the world there were to agree upon, they had so little in common, this husband and wife. He was not a patriot; America had always been her home. She was more frivolous than he with money, because to her, living in this vast, rich country, in the healthy city of Chicago, it always felt as if more money could be made. They went to separate synagogues, he to the one favored by the Russian immigrants, she to the one founded by Germans two generations earlier, where her parents had gone before they had died, the synagogue in which she had grown up, and she could not let that go, not even in this new union. He had more secrets, had seen more hardships. She had only watched it on the news. And he would always carry his daughter, Edie, wherever she wanted to go, on his shoulders, high up in the sky, as close to God as he could get her. And she was absolutely certain that Edie should be walking everywhere by now.

But they agreed about how to have sex with each other (any way they wanted, no judgment allowed) and how often (nightly, at least), and they agreed that food was made of love, and was what made love, and they could never deny themselves a bite of anything they desired.

And if Edie, their beloved, big-eyed, already sharp-witted daughter, was big for her age, it did not matter.

Because how could they not feed her?

Little Edie Herzen, having a bad day, was making the slowest walk up a flight of stairs in the collective history of walking and stairs, until she decided she could not take another step. It was hot in the stairwell, the dusty air overheated by a skylight above, and when Edie finally sat, throwing the bag of books on the floor next to her, the sweat squished down the backs of her thighs onto the stairs.

"Edie, bubbeleh, don't start."

"It's too hot," she said. "Hot, tired. Carry me."

"With what hands?"

"Where's Daddy? He could carry me."

"What is wrong with you today?"

Edie didn't mean to be a baby about it. She was not a whiner. She just wanted to be carried. She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread. She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally. She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand. There was so much to be observed and considered, why did she need to walk? She missed her buggy and sometimes would pull it out of the storage closet and study it wistfully. She would have loved to be pushed around forever, like a princess in a carriage, surveying her kingdom, preferably one with a magical forest, with tiny dancing elves in it. Elves who had their own deli where they only sold liverwurst.

Her mother shifted the groceries in her damp arms. She could smell something sour and realized it was herself, and then a massive rivulet of sweat shot from her armpit down her arm, and she tried to wipe her arm against the bag, and then the bag began to turn, and she reached out for it with the other arm, and then the other bag began to fall, and she hunched over and held them close, trying to rest the bags on the tops of her thighs, but it did not matter, the groceries at the top of both bags spilled out: first the loaf of bread, the greens, the tomatoes, landing on Edie's head, and then two large cans of beans on Edie's fingertips.

Little Edie Herzen, lioness in training, already knew how to roar.

Her mother dropped the bags to the floor. She grabbed her daughter, she held her against her, she squeezed her (wondering again why Edie was already so solid, so hard), she shushed her baby girl, the guilt boiling in her stomach like an egg in hot water, a lurching sensation between wanting her daughter to stop crying already—she was going to be fine in five minutes, five years, fifty years, she would not even remember this pain—and wanting to cry herself, because she knew she would never forget the time she dropped two cans of beans on her daughter's fingers.

 "Let me see them," she said to Edie, who was howling and shaking her head at the same time, holding her hands tight against her. "We won't know if you're all right if I can't look at them."

The howling and the hiding of the hands went on for a while. Neighbors opened their doors and stuck their heads into the hallway, then closed them when they saw it was just that fat child from 6D, being a kid, crying like they do. Edie's mother coddled and begged. The ice cream was melting. One nail was going to turn blue and fall off a week later, and if she thought Edie was hollering now, she hadn't heard anything, but no one knew that yet. There would be no scars, although there would be a lifetime of scars ahead for Edie, in one way or another, but no one knew that yet either.

Her mother sat there with her arm around her daughter, until she did the only thing left she could do. She reached behind them on the floor and grabbed the loaf of rye bread, still warm in its wrapping paper, baked not an hour before at Schiller's down on Fifty-third Street, and pulled off a hunk of it and handed it to her daughter, who ignored her, and continued to sob, unforgiving, a tiny mean bone having just been formed.

"Good," said her mother. "More for me."

How long do you think it took before Edie turned her head and stuck her trembling hand out for food? Her mouth hanging open expectantly, yet drowsily, like a newborn bird. Rye to her mouth. Wishing there were liverwurst. Dreaming of elves. How long until she revealed her other hand, pink, and purple, and blue, the edges of her index finger's nail bloodied, to her mother? Until her mother covered her hand with kisses?

Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.

"Carry me," Edie said, and this time her mother could no longer deny her. Up the stairs, four flights, the bag of library books strapped around her neck, only slightly choking her, while one arm held two bags of groceries, and the other held her beloved daughter, Edie.

The Meanest Act

ROBIN'S MOTHER, EDIE, was having another surgery in a week. Same procedure, different leg. Everyone kept saying, At least we know what to expect. Robin and her downstairs neighbor, Daniel, were toasting the leg at the bar across the street from their apartment building. It was cold out. January in Chicago. Robin had worn five layers just to walk across the street. Daniel was already drunk by the time she got there. Her mother was getting cut open twice in one year. Cheers.

The bar was a no-name, no-shame, no-nothing kind of place. Robin had a hard time giving directions to it. There was a fluorescent Old Style sign in the sole window, but no number on the front door. Between 242 and 246 is what she would say, although for some reason that confused people. But not Daniel. He knew the way.

"Here's to number two," said Daniel. He raised his glass. He was drinking the brown stuff. Usually he drank the yellow stuff or the amber stuff, but it was winter. "Is it the right or the left leg?"

"You know, I can't even remember. I think I've blocked it out. Isn't that terrible? Am I a terrible person?" All of it had been a surprise, though it shouldn't have been. Her mother refused to eat properly or exercise, and in the last decade she had grown obese. Two years ago, she had been diagnosed with diabetes. It was an advanced case. The diabetes, combined with a disastrous gene pool, had led to an arterial disease in her legs. What had started out as tingling had turned to constant pain. Robin had seen her mother's legs in the hospital, after the first surgery, and had gagged at their blue tinge. How had her mother not noticed? Or her father? How had this slipped through the cracks? The doctor had inserted a small metal tube—a stent—into her leg, so that the blood could flow properly. (Robin wondered: where did the blood go, if it did not flow?) Originally the doctor had wanted to do a bypass, an idea that threatened everyone. He still did, according to Robin's brother, Benny. "This could get serious fast," he had told her. "We've been warned." But Edie had negotiated with the doctor. She promised to behave herself. She promised to do the work to get herself right. Thirty-five years as a lawyer, she knew how to put up a fight. Six months later Edie had changed nothing in her life, taken not one step to help herself, and here they all were again.

"It's not that I don't care," said Robin. "It's just that I don't want to know." She knew too much already. This was real life, kicking her in the face, and she wanted nothing to do with it.

Last weekend she had gone home to check on the madness, back to the suburb where she had grown up and then evacuated thirteen years earlier, hoping never to return, but finding herself there all too much these days. Her mother had picked her up in front of the train station, and then driven around the corner and parked in front of a movie theater. It was late afternoon; there had been a half day at the school where Robin taught. (She'd had fantasies about what she would do with that free afternoon: a long run along the lake during the warmest part of the day, or an early bender with Daniel. But it was not to be.) Senior citizens walked out of the matinee as if in slow motion. A few stay-at-home moms dragged their toddlers toward the parking lot across the street. Robin almost hurled herself out of the car after them. Take me with you.

"There's something I need to tell you before we go home," her mother had said, heavy breath, hulking beneath her fur coat, no flesh visible except for her putty-colored face, her drooping chin, her thick-ringed neck. "Your father has left me. He's had enough."

"This is a joke," said Robin.

"This is for real," said her mother. "He's flown the coop, and he's not coming back."

What a weird way to put it, Robin realized later. As if her father were being held like some house pet, trapped in a cage lined with shit-stained newspaper. Her feelings for her father swerved wildly in that moment. Her mother was tough. The situation was tough. He had taken the coward's way out, but Robin had never begrudged people their cowardice; it was simply a choice to be made. Still,  she hated herself for thinking like that. This was her mother, and she was sick, and she needed help. Thrown up against her admittedly fragile moral code, Robin knew that there was an obvious judgment to be made. His decision was despicable. Her train of thought would never be uttered out loud, only the final resolution: Her father would not be forgiven. She had not liked him much before this happened, though she had loved him, and it did not take much to push her over the edge toward something close to hatred, or at the least the dissolution of love.

Her mother was sobbing. She touched her mother's hand. She put her hand on her mother's shoulder. Edie was shaking, and her lips were blue. One step from death, thought Robin. But she was no doctor.

"I should have treated him better," said her mother.

Robin could not argue with her, but still, all she could do was blame her father. Richard Middlestein had signed up for a life with Edie Herzen. And Edie was still alive.

And so the surgery had seemed irrelevant at the time. Robin hadn't even bothered to ask her about her health. Her brother was taking care of all that most of the time anyway. Robin had gone to the first surgery, sat there for a few hours in the waiting room like everyone else—Boring; they all knew she was going to be fine, it was a simple procedure, and she'd be out of the hospital that night—and then had claimed she was too busy for the next one. Robin had thought she'd gotten off scot-free, even if it meant she was a horrible human being. Her reliable, solid, family-focused brother, Benny, who lived two towns away from her parents, would be there. Him, his wife with the nose job, her niece and nephew, Emily and Josh, all of them patiently waiting alongside her father for her mother to surface. How many worried children was it going to take to screw in that lightbulb anyway?

But this latest trauma was something new and unusual. This was heartbreak. And abandonment. And Benny was not even remotely prepared to deal with anything like that. Robin's mind traveled to other people in her mother's life who might be able to help her, like her longtime friends from the synagogue, the Cohns and the Grodsteins and the Weinmans and the Frankens. Forty years they'd known each other. But they were all still married, and they knew nothing of this business. No, this was Robin's territory. Always single, probably for a reason. At last she had been called up to bat.

"You are definitely not a terrible person," said Daniel. He scratched his soft-looking blond beard. Robin had been imagining for months that it was soft. Everything about him looked soft and comforting, but also mildly weak, as well. His beard and mustache and the hair on his head and the hair on his chest and belly—she had seen him sunning himself on his back porch on a number of occasions that past summer, sprawled out on a faded hammock—were all golden and feathery. She had even tried to pat him on the head once, just to see what his hair felt like, but he had taken the flight of her hand as the beginning of a high five and had raised his own hand to meet hers, and she had no choice but to respond.

Whatever, it was just hair. She didn't need to touch it. She had her own hair, which was plenty soft on its own, black, curly, long, springy, wiry, but still soft.

And anyway, then there was the rest of him, the belly bloated by the yellow-amber-brown stuff, slung low and wide over the belt of his pants, his own personal air bag; the droopy, faded flannel shirts, with the holes in the cuffs and the pockets; the white-blue jeans and corduroys with the frayed knees; the Converse high-tops with the tape around the bottoms to keep the soles on. The bloodshot eyes. The torn cuticles. The amount of time he spent online. (Sure, it was his job, but still it concerned her.) The only time he left the house was to go to this bar, or when Robin dragged him on walks in warmer weather.

"Your boyfriend Daniel," is what her roommate, Felicia, called him.

"He's not my boyfriend," she would say back.

"You sure act like it," Felicia would say. "What do you talk about on those walks of yours?"

They talked about her mother. Just like they were doing now.

"I don't know how to help her," she said.

"I think you just have to be there for her," he said.

She knew that was what she was supposed to do, but every time she took that train home, and the view slowly transformed from the high, gleaming architecture of downtown Chicago in the distance to the swirling mass of strip- and mini- and mall-malls that defined the burbs—there was more to the suburbs, she knew that, but that was all she could ever see anymore, her view obscured by a combination of prejudice and neurosis—​a deep depression began to constrict her.

If she had never moved back to Chicago from New York, none of this would be happening. She knew it in her gut. She had lasted there only a year, one year with four other girls in a tired old floor-through in Bushwick, with a creaky ceiling and neighbors who seemed to be constantly cooking. (Clanking pans, nonstop sizzles; why were they always frying something?) There were two windows in the apartment, one that faced an empty lot next door, and the other, which faced the trash-infested alleyway in the back. There were bars on the windows. Inside was prison, but outside was worse. Men made nasty comments to her on the street. She got called "white girl" a lot, and she hated it, even though she could not argue that point. She kept searching for the charm in her neighborhood but was neither equipped nor informed. She spent much of her time that year on a train to somewhere else in the city, anywhere else but there.

Her roommates were all the same as Robin, more or less. Their names were Jennifer and Julie and Jordan; they were all Jewish, they all had gone to midwestern colleges, and they had all individual secret joint bank accounts with their mothers, who would put a little extra in there every once in a while, so that they could treat themselves to something nice. There was a fifth roommate, who slept in the living room on the couch when she wasn't sleeping at her girlfriend's house. She was a brisk girl from Alaska, Teresa, who had grown up in a town of drunks, fighting her way to the middle class while the rest of the roommates did nothing but hover there.

They all had been brought together by the Teach for America program, and then spread out in terrible high schools across Brooklyn. Not quaint Park Slope Brooklyn, where the pretty people with babies lived, but east of there, on the way to racetracks and airports; on the way, it sometimes felt, to nowhere at all. Robin had not been prepared for any of it. Not even after a lifetime of consuming mass culture that told her how messed up schools in impoverished urban areas could be. Not a film or a song or an episode of Law & Order or a class in college or an orientation program had prepared her for how much one year teaching in a school full of at-risk kids was going to suck. If she was seeking hope and inspiration, or if she was thinking she was going to provide it, she was in the wrong place. She was way out of her league. Everyone knew it. She had no poker face. All day long she flinched.

She would wake up every morning and wonder if she was doing more harm than good. She spent money out of her own pocket on paper and markers. She tried to innovate: She covered a large empty tin can (last night's diced tomatoes for the pasta sauce) with paper and named it the "Hear Me Can" and placed it in the front of the classroom. "When you feel like yelling or you're upset about something, just write it down and put it in there," she instructed the children. "And I promise you will be heard."

After class, she would read the notes. Sometimes it was easy-to-take information.

Someone stole my pencil.

I don't like tests.

They should have chicken nuggets every day at lunch.

But more often, the missives were hateful or sad.

My father called me a faggot last night.

It's too loud to sleep in my house.

I hate you I hate these words I hate everyone.

But that wasn't why she left town, at least not in her memory. There had been an actual, concrete turning point, which had happened near the end of the school year. For a week she and her roommates had woken up covered in bites, at first just a few, but then days later, their bodies, their bellies, their legs, their arms, were covered in red, stinging marks. There was no denying it. They had bedbugs. Teresa was the one who had finally recognized what the bites were and what would have to be done about it. They would have to wash all their clothes in hot water. An exterminator would have to be called. "And you can't do anything but trash those mattresses," she said. Who had suggested they burn them first? Was it Robin? Would her mind have gone to destruction so quickly? If she wasn't the one who said it, she was definitely the one who agreed to it right away.

In an instant, they were all up. They could not live with the bug-infested objects in their lives a moment longer. They kicked their mattresses down the steps. Teresa single-handedly carried the couch herself. They dragged each item through the empty lot, across the gravel, and then to the filthy alley behind their house. Robin ran to the corner deli and bought some lighter fluid. One of the girls had some matches. The other girls picked through the alley for more flammable items: old newspapers, a lampshade, a half dozen dirty pizza-delivery boxes. They all stood there and watched the flames burn the mattresses. Burn those fuckers right up. They all stood there, scratching themselves. Was this what they deserved? They had taught for America.

Robin examined her mottled arm and said, "Screw this. I'm moving home."

"Me too," said Julie.

"Me too," said Jennifer.

"Me too," said Jordan.

"Not me," said Teresa. "I'm moving in with my girlfriend. New York is awesome."

Now Robin lived with just two roommates (one who was never there because she stayed with her boyfriend most of the time in some sort of undercover, "let's not offend our Catholic parents even though we're in our late twenties and are clearly not virgins any longer" gesture, and the other who was always there because she had nowhere better to be, much like Robin) in a spacious apartment in Andersonville, just three train stops away from the private school where she had taught history for the last seven years. Her life in Chicago was better in all the ways she had wanted it to be at the time she moved, although she wondered sometimes if she had left too soon, because she knew that she would never go back. This was it, Chicago. The end of the line.

Because she had a heartsick mother to take care of now.

And where would she have gone anyway, these past few years? No matter where, she would be living the same life as she had in Chicago. Robin would get up in the morning, sip coffee, do a few stretches, run five miles, shower, moisturize, pluck a stray hair from her chin, put on too much eyeliner, and then, before she left, water some plants she cared little for but kept alive out of habit. Then she would take a train or a bus to a school near enough where she wouldn't spend her whole life commuting, but far enough that she felt grown up—real adults left their homes and went somewhere to work; this was a problem she had with Daniel and his life and taking him seriously—and while she traveled, she would read whatever post-seventies novel she had secured from the library, and she would smirk at the funny parts but never laugh out loud. At school she would teach a class about the Vietnam War and she would get a little political but nothing too outrageous (she was clearly sympathetic with the protesters, but still, We should always support our troops), then have lunch with the one good friend she had made there—whoever the other caustic young single woman


On Sale
Oct 23, 2012
Page Count
288 pages

Jami Attenberg

About the Author

Jami Attenberg is the author of a story collection, Instant Love, and four novels: The Kept Man, The Melting Season, and The Middlesteins, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and Saint Mazie. She has contributed essays and criticism to the New York Times, Real Simple, Elle, the Washington Post, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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