The Middlesteins - Jami Attenberg
So, you know how you never actually trust those blubs on the back (and front, and side flap, and first five pages) of a book? Because they're all probably very expensive lies? I mean, does anyone actually, seriously consider them when you pick up a book ? Right, so I always kinda sorta scan over them just because they're there and when you know how to read, it's hard to not-read something that's there (I highly recommend GRRM's blurb on The Magicians, though, because you can tell how obviously bitter he is about that Hugo award in 2001 (jk, ilu George, plz don't ever hate me)). But I have to say, if you believe just one book-blurb in your entire life, believe Jonathan Franzen's blurb on The Middlesteins. It's right there, smack-dab on the cover and basically sums up exactly how I feel about this book.
So. Edie Middlestein is morbidly obese. Very literally. She is obese to a morbid extent. She has diabetes, has already had two surgeries in her legs, her doctor is hinting she may need a bypass, and she's still hitting up MickyD's, Burger King, and a Chinese restaurant all in one afternoon. At sixty-soemthing-ish, she quite frankly, doesn't seem to care. But when her husband of over thirty years leaver her, her children (and children-in-law) rush in to fill the vacuum of caring for her. Or at least, the motions of care. Despite their awkwardness and emotional distance, they all try to come together to help their mother. But the question remains whether you can change someone who doesn't want to change.
This is another one of those books that takes your from point-of-view to point-of-view so that you form a more rounded opinion of each character and are not shaped by the other characters' biases. For instance, when Edie's husband, Richard, first leaves her, naturally I assume he's some kind of terrible person. But then we get Richard's POV and we see that she was constantly criticizing and hounding him and that there hasn't been any love-loss between them for years.
The one thing I didn't like was that sometimes Attenberg jumps around too much without really settling you into it. There are chapters titled like "Edie, 241 pounds (or some other weight)" and that's our only frame of reference for the chapter at least until a page or two in, which made it hard to orient oneself in how old the characters were supposed to be at that time. She also had the tendency to trail off into extended flash-forwards, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't. On the one hand, it provided insight in to the characters' futures and how the events of the present (past) affected them in the long run. On the other hand, it sometimes meandered too far from the story going on at the moment and made it hard to jump back into the present and keep track of what was the present and what was the future.
I'm going to quote Franzen's blurb here because he basically said it exactly how I would have: "The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."
This book really did grab me from the very first pages--initially, I wasn't sure if I was interested in checking it out, but then I skimmed the first couple lines and I absolutely had to read more. And while the whole book was good throughout, it was really elevated by the ending.
4/5 big, fat Fancies.