Oriana's Reviews > The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
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's review
Jun 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-2012
Read from November 08 to 13, 2012

I can't even begin to list all the interviews and articles and accolades Jami is getting for this book, which is so so so so great. I am sort of friends with her, by which I mean we're friends on Facebook and have chatted at publishing events, and she's always been really nice. But we know each other only glancingly, so while I was predisposed to enjoy this book, you can still take it at face value when I tell you that it was holy motherfucking incredibly good.

It even made me cry at one point (on the subway of course, during morning rush hour when it was so packed I couldn't even raise my hand to wipe my eyes), and it wasn't even during a sad part, it was this scene of triumphant joy, one of those small triumphs that in retrospect will seem trivial but at the time feels like the most important thing in the goddamn world.

The reason it was possible for me to have an emotional reaction to a scenes like this—in fact, it was impossible for me not to—is because Jami totally fucking nails it, she gets these characters so well crafted and so vivid that they actually exist for you, in your brain, off the page. You know the things they're doing outside of the story because they're full people; you don't have to be told each detail that moves the story along, and when there's a jump in time, it's totally natural to fill in what happened in the meantime.

It reminds me of A Visit From the Goon Squad, kind of, except more intimate, less sweeping. There are back-and-forth temporal jumps, but by five years, or ten, instead of Jennifer Egan's fifty. And The Midds follows just one family, three generations, sometimes relating the same incident from Grandma's point of view that we already saw through Aunt's eyes, which serves to tighten the intimacy we feel with these characters, this family, these very very real people. She also does the narrative in slightly different ways chapter by chapter, also like Goon Squad except not as vastly different, and but where in Goon Squad the pivotal chapter was that gimmicky PowerPoint thing, here it's told in third-person-plural. It's the same chapter that made me cry, in many ways the climax of the plot, and it concerns a b'nai mitzvah, this big-deal event where the whole fucked-up family and their whole wide social circle is all together in one place, and it's narrated, like i said, in plural, from the point of view of several couples, the older generation, the lifelong friends of Grandma & Grandpa, and it just opens the story out and out and out, the "we" getting all sentimental about the twin teenagers, full of gossip about the teens' parents, aching with knowing too much about their friends and their friends' children and grandchildren, able to be catty and sappy and self-righteous and self-doubting, with hurting feet and too much wine and so many years of friendship, simultaneously taking the long view and the very very narrow one... I don't know, I guess this won't make so much sense to people who haven't read the book, but believe me, it's an amazing effect.

Let me try to be a little more general. The Midds is like Skippy Dies but much narrower, it's like The Believers but much more unique, it's like On Beauty except not awful. The downfall of those last two books was that, in the end, none of the characters were actually likable, whereas in The Midds they really all are, even the adulterer, even the OCD mom, even the snotty teen, even Edie Middlestein, the crazy matriarch who is doggedly trying to eat herself to death.

This is a tight, standard, modernist story of a family, their ins and outs, their foibles and triumphs, a selection of anecdotes and incidents that, stacked together, make up lives. It's straightforward, riddled with sharp smart turns of phrase. It's solid, serious, full of hope and heartbreak and the complicated ways we fuck each other up in the name of love. It's also about food and its ability to comfort, to mask, to consume, to destroy. It's breathtaking lots of times, and when I realized what was going to happen at the end I got really mad and went two days refusing to read the last dozen pages, but then I did, because you have to, because Jami is right to do it, even though it's devastating. And it's devastating because the rest is so goddamn good.

Win all the awards, Jami. And then write another one, and another one, and another one.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by tee (new) - rated it 3 stars

tee eee! i ordered a signed copy from word brooklyn a couple of weeks ago, am haunting my PO Box until it arrives!

Oriana eeeee!!

message 3: by tee (new) - rated it 3 stars

tee Nooooo. I am dying waiting for this fucker to arrive. This made it infinitely more unbearable.

Oriana Haha sorry!! I can't wait to hear what you think when you finally get it.

message 5: by tee (new) - rated it 3 stars

tee I went down to my po box to check and it was therrrrre. am going to read it straight away (and will also stop hogging your comments section with my inane updates, heh).

Oriana Aww, I love your inane updates!! Excited to hear what you think of this.

Heather That chapter blew me away too. The artistry of it was really incredible, and you're right, it was very touching as well.

Oriana Jami is so awesome. I'm glad you think so too, Heather!

switterbug (Betsey) Man, what an awesome review! I get it...I mean, I've got to GET it!

Oriana Aww thanks so much!!

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