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Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, The Middlesteins, travels through the life of Edie Middlestein, a once portly child, now obese adult, thrown into the next stage of her life after her husband of 30 years, Richard, leaves. The dissolution of her marriage not only uproots a seemingly solid life in suburbia, but also forces her children (Benny and Robin) and her pencil-thin daughter-in-law (Rachelle) to search for a cure to Edie’s endless self-destruction. Beyond Edie’s devastating obsession with food, The Middlesteins is about new love, second chances, and the role of family in personal recovery.
The Village Voice sat down with the Williamsburg-based Attenberg at South 4th Bar & Cafe and got her take on Twitter, the Brooklyn writing scene, the many shades of feminism, and why she isn’t a spokesperson for childhood obesity.
You’ve lived in quite a few places, including some big cities. Why is Midwestern suburbia an ideal location for exploring this type of familial drama?
The book opens with a young Edie lazily ascending the steps to her apartment with her mother. Then she gives up, opting instead to have her mother carry her the rest of the way. She seems in many ways to be just another bratty five year old, but your description of her weight makes her somewhat differently indulgent than the average child. When you created Edie, was it your intention to make a statement about childhood obesity?
No. The Middlesteins is about a lifelong relationship with food. I was just trying to write about a life. Does that sound pretentious? That does sound really pretentious. It’s more to do with her relationship to food and a mother soothing a child with food. Less, "Oh, this is her struggle with childhood obesity," and more this was an early lesson she learned in life—if you’re upset, put some food in your mouth and then you’ll be quiet.
The women characters seem to be so strong-willed. Juxtaposed, the men—who you even depict in some ways as frail—seem a bit weak. Did you mean to write such dominate women characters?
Yes! Strong Jewish women! I think the women are strong, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the men have to be weak. I wasn’t trying to write it that way. There is a moment when Rachelle says she never knows who’s in charge of the relationship [in her marriage with Benny], and that to me seems like the most ideal relationship you can have—the power is always being shifting back and forth. I think the men hold their own in the book, and they are more capable of understanding what makes them happy.
The child Edie seems painfully similar to the Edie we meet as an adult—stubborn, still fat. She did manage to have a family and a career—her weight causes problems with both—but you seem to assert that women can be stronger outside of parenthood and marriage.
You’re not the only person who brought that up. It’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. I don’t think you can blame all things…it’s an entire life. My past work was really about women leaving men and being much happier afterwards, but I’m recognizing there are more nuances to it. You’re doing a feminist reading of this book!
The way this book has been reviewed—90 percent of the reviews don’t talk about my being a woman. The subject matter isn’t women’s lit. It’s about dark characters and dark places. There was a lot of bait and switching going on with the marketing of my books, and now I have a new publisher, and they decided they were going to just say my book was awesome. It's nice to not be put into boxes again. It’s troubling, right? Does it trouble you that men maybe get more attention than women do in writing than women do? Among other things.
Of course it is troubling. I didn’t realize I was doing a feminist reading of the book but I guess I did.
The problem is, I’m inherently a feminist. Well, it’s not a problem. Of course, this is a feminist book. These women are strong, but I don’t think just because women are strong, men have to be weak. Maybe it’s my brand of feminism. It’s tricky. There are so many shades of it. So many shades of feminism. Does that sound bitchy?