Admittedly, I had never heard of Jami Attenberg prior to reading The Middlesteins. And also truthfully, I would have never picked the book up during my stroll through Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City (go there.) had it not been for one tiny thing that managed to catch my eye through the bright yellow of its cover: “The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling.” It wasn’t the quote, which was nice and flattering—it was who wrote it. This sparkling gem was written by Jonathan Franzen. If you know anything about me, you know Franzen is one of my all time faves, so I did not take this review lightly. I snatched the book, barely read anything more on the back cover other than the words “epic story of marriage, family, and obsession” (some of my favorite things!), didn’t even read the first page (gasp!), bought it, and took it back to Philadelphia with me, where I gave it its place on my book shelf, next in line to be read.
And then I read it.
Given my anticipation, The Middlesteins was a huge disappointment for me. I kept hoping it would get better. There was no emotional depth to the characters. They were repetitive, one-dimensional people who I had neither love nor hate for by the end. They just were. I couldn’t even keep their names straight because their defining characteristics were so boring, and Attenberg made the poor choice of having a sister and a sister-in-law begin with the same letter, and I kept having to remind myself who was the caustic one and who was the bitchy-in-a-slightly-more-cynical-way one. The characters’ communication is stunted. There were so many openings to create more dramatic tension (or, really, any) but every moment just fell flat.
The “reveal” was anticlimactic. I’m not sure whom I was supposed to feel for. Edie’s eating habits were interesting, but there was little delving into her psyche to understand why she was eating the way she was, other than she just had always been comforted by food. I didn’t hate her husband for leaving (was I supposed to?) The family members seemed to not like each other, and none of them had redeeming qualities enough for me to care for them. There was very little moving the story forward besides my desire to not abandon a book midway.
And the thing is, I am one of those people who doesn’t really need a plot! I can lose myself in characters for 300+ pages, following their moves without any definite storyline, or even without any clear character motivation. Some of my favorites do this. And Attenberg had all of the pieces! All of them, there! Not necessarily a strong plot, but enough drama could be made through the splitting of a family. But she just didn’t do it.
On the writing itself: it certainly wasn’t bad, per se, but there were odd and inconsistent literary devices employed that made me feel like this was some kind of first draft attempt at experimentation that wasn’t fully weeded out by her editors. There are odd moments where the story moves from third person “up close” to third person “out,” where the narrator is her own character and can switch between other characters’ thoughts. At some random point during the middle of the story, Attenberg begins employing the “tell everything that will happen to this character in the future” device, which, when used effectively, I generally enjoy and find to be a nice way to add tension to a character, but when it’s used sporadically, and when the characters are so boring themselves, it just feels lazy.
A note on the style: I’ve heard the criticism that stories told from various characters’ points of view push the reader away from developing any strong feelings for the character. By not spending enough time with one character, the theory goes, we are not able to connect with them, and thus, not able to develop the oh-so-important empathy. I don’t agree with this. I actually find this style to be more interesting, and sometimes better than staying with just one character throughout an entire novel. Good writers can invest you in their characters in just a few pages, or even a few paragraphs. Poor writers write pages and pages of characters, and we still don’t feel for them. Attenberg’s not a poor writer, but this story left me empty.
A notable line:
She pitied him for his blindness, and she envied him for his freedom, and if she had known just a few months before, during more innocent times, that she would feel that way for the rest of her life, not just about Josh but about a lot of people in the world, which is to say (in a polite way) conflicted, she would have treasured those unaware, nonjudgmental, preadolescent moments more thoroughly. (Oh, to be eleven again!) Because once you know, once you really know how the world works, you can’t unknown it.