In “A Conversation with Jami Attenberg,” which appears at the end of the paperback edition of “The Middlesteins,” the author cites Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge” as inspiration. Readers of Strout’s “novel in stories” will, indeed, find a similar structure in “The Middlesteins” (Grand Central Publishing, 287 pages, $15). Attenberg’s book, like Strout’s, centers on a single character — in this case, Edie Middlestein, a woman with a shockingly unhealthy relationship with food — but gives voice to multiple characters in chapters that could be stand-alone stories. Taken as a whole, these story chapters offer a layered portrait of a family in crisis.
The structure allows Attenberg not only to shift among a variety of characters — including a chapter narrated by a collective voice made up of the Middlesteins’ oldest friends — but also with narrative technique. Early on, she addresses the level of truthfulness in one of the book’s central relationships by providing a numbered list headed: “Here are the lies Rachelle had told her husband in the order she had told them.”
Throughout the book, Attenberg’s characters grapple with issues, including marital fealty, child rearing, and the intersection of faith and doubt. Attenberg often sketches a wide swath of a character’s life — past and future — providing context for his or her behavior in the present of the book. She does all of this with a light touch and appealing prose, while never suggesting that her characters’ problems are anything less than consuming and, in some cases, intractable.
“The Middlesteins” is a story about seeking solace wherever one might find it, in ways healthy and unhealthy. While the book is suffused with heartbreak, Attenberg offers humor and hope, as well.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.