Edie Middlestein is obese and suffering the health effects of her fast food and junk food diet, and to make things worse, her husband of 40 years has just left her. Richard is fed up with Edie’s refusal to take care of herself and the sham their marriage has become. Daughter Robin, who spends her time in the bar across the street with her neighbor Daniel, thinks what her father did is unforgivable. Son Benny just wants everyone to get along, assisted by his affinity for smoking pot each night, and Benny’s wife Rachelle makes it her life’s mission to save Edie’s life, while planning her twins’ b’nai mitzvah. The Middlesteins are a bit of a mess.
This is not an uplifting story by any means, though there is an undercurrent of hope in the ending. The characters are fascinating, if shallow and self-absorbed. They are Jews in name only; Robin attends seder at her boyfriend’s house only to please him and her dislike of Judaism is clear, and the b’nai mitzvah is more about how big of a party Rachelle can throw than the religious aspects. Edie isn’t just unable to stop overeating, she doesn’t want to stop overeating, and her Chinese restaurant-owner boyfriend isn’t helping matters. The attempts by her loved ones to get her to change just go in one ear and out the other, without consideration of how her actions are affecting those loved ones.
The Middlesteins is told mostly from the points of view of Edie, Rachelle and Richard, who is referred to in his sections as simply Middlestein, with chapters on Robin, Benny or his daughter Emily thrown in. One particularly enjoyable and enlightening chapter toward the end is told in first person plural by the four couples who were friends of Edie and Richard, and is a description of the over-the-top b’nai mitzvah.
This is a character-driven novel, but there’s enough of a plot to keep things moving. Richard’s attempts at internet dating are amusing and sad at the same time, and it’s obvious that Edie’s downward spiral will only end badly. While Robin is featured early in the novel, once her friendship with Daniel turns into something more, we don’t really hear from her again. One unusual aspect of this novel is the way the story is told – it jumps around in time, not based on years, but on Edie’s weight. We find out how much she weighed as a child, when she met Richard, when she’s about to have her first surgery due to complications from diabetes.
Ok, maybe the Middlesteins are more than a bit of a mess, but The Middlesteins is an entertaining mess and one that I enjoyed.
Notes on the audiobook: This book is narrated by Molly Ringwald, whose own book was recently reviewed by Jennifer. Her voice is recognizable but not distracting to the story, and she does a great flat mid-western accent. I enjoyed her portrayal of the Middlestein family.