Red onion on warm rye bread. Salty liverwurst. These are the foods that not-so-little Edie dreams about when we first meet her at age 5 in Jami Attenberg’s new novel “The Middlesteins.” Even as a little girl, she is “a cement block of flesh,”?Attenberg writes. And as the reader gets to know Edie, that mass doesn’t thin out.
“The Middlesteins” revolves around the four Middlesteins (Edie, her husband Richard, her daughter Robin and son Benny) with Franzen-esque layers. It’s a character-driven work, but food is their motivator. “It is a really tricky topic; it makes people feel nervous,” says Attenberg of the Middlesteins’ complicated relationship with eating. “Food makes you feel so good, and it’s necessary. But it’s also one of those things that people can abuse. If they overeat or under-eat, it’s there for all to see. It’s a very present addiction.”
Attenberg handles the passage of time and calories in the book with a literary eye; she’s already been praised in her non-voyeuristic depiction of an overeater. “I was interested in what it would take for someone to change,”?she says about how she approached her characters. “I was more interested in the difficulties of trying to help someone who might not want to be helped.”
Attenberg, the author of three previous books, says “The Middlesteins” was the easiest one to write — she had a draft written in four months. So which is the bigger obsession for her, food or writing? She laughs: “I?keep saying that if I could have all the time back that I spend thinking about what I’m going to eat for dinner, I’d have 10 more novels written.”