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Cover for The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

A Novel

Jami Attenberg


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (10/22/2012)
Compact Disc (12/1/2012)
Library Binding, Large Print (1/1/2013)

November 2012 Indie Next List

“Just when you think you're done reading about dysfunctional American families, a novel like The Middlesteins comes along and blows you away. You will become deeply invested in the loves and longings of the eponymous, semi-chaotic Jewish clan from Chicago. There's Edie, the tough, fierce matriarch who can't stop eating; Richard, the husband who leaves her; and Robin and Benny, the adult children, distracted by troubles of their own. Attenberg proves that there is still much more left to say -- about family, heartache, and food -- and so many fresh and funny ways to say it.”
— Elizabeth Sher, Politics & Prose Books and Coffee Shop, Washington, DC
View the List


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.

Praise For The Middlesteins: A Novel


"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."—Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

"The Middlesteins is a tender, sad and funny look at a family and their mother. In fact, it's so readable, it's practically edible."—Meg Wolitzer, NPR All Things Considered

"A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life."—Kirkus (Starred Review)

"Expansive heart and sly wit... Throughout this poignant novel, the characters wrestle with two defining questions: What do we owe each other after a life together? What do we owe ourselves?"—Abbe Wright, O Magazine

"With a wit that never mocks and a tenderness that never gushes, [Attenberg] renders this family's ordinary tragedies as something surprisingly affecting... Attenberg is superb at mocking the cliches of middle-class life by giving them the slightest turn to make people suddenly real and wholly sympathetic."—Ron Charles, Washington Post

"[An] irresistible family portrait with piquant social commentary. Kinetic with hilarity and anguish, romance and fury, Attenberg's rapidly consumed yet nourishing novel anatomizes our insatiable hunger for love, meaning, and hope."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (Starred Review)

"The most authentic, endearing fictional portrait of a family in recent memory. . . There is no page of this novel without compassion, empathy, humor and restraint."—Carmela Ciuraru, Dallas Morning News

"Attenberg finds ample comic moments in this wry tale about an unraveling marriage. She has a great ear for dialog, and the novel is perfectly paced. . . . [She] seamlessly weaves comedy and tragedy in this warm and engaging family saga of love and loss."—Library Journal

"[Attenberg's] characters' thoughts-Richard and Benny in particular-seem utterly real, and her wry, observational humor often hits sideways rather than head-on. . . [A] wonderfully messy and layered family portrait."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"Jami Attenberg's comic-tragic portrait of The Middlesteins, a quirky midwestern Jewish family collapsing under burdens of betrayal, desire, and obesity, is delish."—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

"[A] remarkable feat.... Clear-eyed funny and truthful and deeply moving, especially in the killer-punch of its ending... Refined, economical and beautifully crafted."—Stefan Fleischer, The Buffalo News

"Hugely enjoyable . . . Attenberg has the Tolstoyan gift for creating life on the page. Sometimes all she needs to capture a soul is a couple of sentences. But the pleasure she takes in these people goes beyond compassion . . . When Attenberg shows us the world through their eyes, they're not just interesting and sympathetic; they're a treat to be with. I didn't want a single one of their narratives to end. . . . The book isn't merely a delight to read: it lifts you up."—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News

"Vibrant . . . Thanks to Attenberg's sure-handed prose, this agile narrative swiftly moves around in time and perspectives . . . Attenberg evokes memorable moments of authentic sadness and tenderness while thoughtfully and comically examining the question of what we inherit from our families. In the case of the Middlesteins, it is many things, including their sometimes-enduring love for each other."—S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle

"This gem of a book is swift, moving and brutally honest, but it has as family-centric moral at its heart: Without family, we are nothing."—Susannah Cahalan, New York Post

"Funny, compassionate tragicomedy...notable for the nimble way it combines humor and pathos. Attenberg can be wry and sharply funny, but there's a tenderness in her portrayal of her outsized main character and her family."—Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

"A smart novel that tackles big issues."—Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)

"The Middlesteins is a juicy, delicious, dark smorgasbörd of a novel."—Royal Young, Interview Magazine

"Blazing, ferocious, and great-hearted. . . .THE MIDDLESTEINS will blow you away."—Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia

"Jami Attenberg has a gift for making you sympathize with each and every one of her characters. The result is a rich family portrait that's sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and gripping all the way through. The Middlesteins are every bit as complex and contradictory as your family, or mine. I'm still thinking about them long after I turned the final page."—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Commencement and Maine

"Jami Attenberg writes with startling honesty and haunting compassion about characters caught between desire and obligation. Blunt and beautifully written, THE MIDDLESTEINS peels back the layers of one family's struggle to hold together even as its members fall apart, examining the commitments and betrayals, the guilt and grievances, the wounds and recoveries. Told with great hope and humor, this is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance, the roles we yearn to escape, and the bonds that prove unbreakable. It's a wonderful book."—Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals

Grand Central Publishing, 9781455507207, 304pp.

Publication Date: June 4, 2013

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.

Conversation Starters from

Why can’t Edie divorce herself from her relationship with food? What makes her eat? When the story begins, her health is far gone. Do you think she could have learned to curb her appetite? If so, when?

Do you believe Richard made the right decision, breaking off his marriage with Edie? Why or why not? Did their subsequent dates with other people change your opinion? Did their children’s reactions?

At the beginning of the novel, Rachelle gives the impression her marriage with Benny is democratic. “At any given moment, she could never be sure who was in control in their relationship” (p. 31). How does this change over the course of the novel? Do you think Rachelle was right to pressure Benny to talk to his parents, or do you think she should have spoken with each of them directly?

Each of the characters struggles with their responsibility to Edie. Why didn’t Edie’s family act sooner? Why didn’t the neighbors step in? Are the other characters at fault here, or do you believe it is Edie’s responsibility to care for herself? Do you think Rachelle overreacts?

Emily is described as resembling her Aunt Robin, since they share black, beady eyes and a surly temperament. What other similarities did you notice between the family members? Do you think Benny is like his father, or Robin like her mother?

What is the significance of the suburban Chicago setting in this novel? How has the Jewish community there shifted since Richard opened his first pharmacy?

What role does Jewish heritage play for Robin, when she feels so conflicted about her faith? Why do you think she tries so hard to avoid going to Daniel’s family Seder? Do you think her romance with Daniel changes her relationship with her faith?

Were you surprised that Edie’s boyfriend was the one to find her when she finally passed? At the end of this chapter, one sentence reveals a lot about Kenneth’s heartbreak: “No one was entitled to anything in his life, least of all love.” Do you agree or disagree? What does this tell you about Kenneth’s love life?

How does the funeral change Richard’s feelings for Edie? Why do you think he blames the neighbors for buying food without letting him chip in? How has his relationship with his community been affected by the divorce? Do you think he’ll be able to repair the damage after Edie’s death?

The narration often skips ahead in time, so we know which statements the characters make are true and which ones are not. An example is p. 268, where Richard says Robin will regret calling herself an orphan, and she doesn’t until he passes away. How does this narrative style change the story for you? How do the multiple perspectives differ in the telling? Did you sympathize the most with one character above the others? If so, who?

Do you believe the last sentence, that the family was close in the end? Why or why not?