And much else besides.
So, we have two siblings, Benny and Robin, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Benny is married to Rachelle, who is the sort of daughter-in-law many Jewish families would love to have. They have twins, Josh and Emily, preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. Benny tries to be a good husband and father, a still point in a turning world – though he needs a joint after work to help him. His sister Robin has a galactico-sized talent for anger and unhappiness and she likes a glass of wine, or several. In the past, Benny has worried about Robin. But not any more. He has bigger worries now: his father Richard, and in particular, his mother, Edie.
Edie was a lawyer for thirty-five years. Now, she’s a big woman with a big personality and not enough to do. And the trouble is, she’s getting bigger. She weighs in at near on 350 pounds. She’s about to have a stent put in one leg to match the stent put in the other leg six months ago. She has diabetes. There are dark murmurings at the hospital about bypass surgery.
Edie, it seems, is eating herself to death. And after nearly forty years of marriage, Richard has walked out on her.
Who are these guys? They are The Middlesteins, now published in the UK and coming to BBC Radio 4 next week (click here for the programme link). I won’t say much more so as to keep the surprise – this astute review from The Independent gives more background, if you want it – but it’s not giving away too much to say that this wonderful novel is built around food. Food is everywhere, from Edie’s reckless and continual pit-stops in burger bars to the Chinese restaurant where she finds friendship, love and a limitless menu. The fate of the family is discussed over meals at home or in restaurants. Robin attends a seder at her boyfriend’s parents house and leaves with an (unwanted) tupperware container of leftover brisket. The b’nai mitzvah features that ultimate status symbol, a chocolate fountain. As Edie’s parents conclude in the opening chapter: “Food was made of love, and love was made of food.” Edie’s tragedy is that she takes refuge in this thought and runs with it way, way too far.
This is Jami Attenberg‘s fourth book and her first to be published in the UK, following two previous novels - The Kept Man and The Melting Season – and a collection of stories, Instant Love. Until now, she was little-known over here, but I suspect this has changed forever.
In a previous post (Reader’s Block), I said I was lucky enough so far to have only worked on books that I loved. This applies with additional sweet’n'sour to The Middlesteins. It’s a sad and bitter book in some ways, but underscored with heart, and it’s very, very funny. While some might describe them as dysfunctional, for me the Middlesteins are just flawed, messy and sometimes confused like the rest of us. And even though my job is finished, I find myself still worrying about them.
For the adaptation we had to lose, unfortunately, most of the chapters that deal with Edie’s back story. And one of the challenges in paring down the text was the number of long sentences with parenthetical ‘asides’. These can be an abridger’s friend – often they can be cut without losing too much that’s important in an episode. But not in this case. We’d have lost too much of the book’s flavour, those moments of ’more-thoughts-than-I can-get-out-of-my-head-at-once’ that spit and crackle like a steak dropped into hot oil. But having decided to keep them, this posed a fresh challenge in the studio. If you read them too slowly the listener will lose track of the thread. They have to taken quickly, so that it sounds as if they burst out of your head that very moment. But reader Tracy-Ann Oberman and producer Karen Rose were more than up for it. And not only do they keep the narrative pulsing, Tracy-Ann’s characterisations (and there are a lot of them) are a delight.
I hope you enjoy our ‘low-calorie’ radio version (told in 20,000 of the book’s 67,000 words) but equally I hope you will go on to read The Middlesteins in it’s full, unexpurgated, sodium-and-sauce-drenched glory.
Until next time, eat and feed each other with love, but please do so (more or less) responsibly …