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Oh, so unhappy characters compel

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The Middlesteins

By Jami Attenberg

Grand Central, 288 pages, $28

TOLSTOY famously wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," and, boy, are the Middlesteins unhappy.

The protagonists of American writer Jami Attenberg's mordantly funny but mostly sad fourth novel are a dysfunctional Midwestern Jewish family whose matriarch, Edie, is eating herself to death.

In her 60s, and always a woman with meat on her bones, she has ballooned to over 300 pounds and suffers from diabetes and its attendant complications.

Her husband, Richard, is no longer in love with her and even if he were, could not bring himself to embrace her now-immense body. Once the owner of a string of successful pharmacies, he's now down to one, a dusty relic patronized by a faithful but waning Jewish clientele.

Daughter Robin is a sarcastic, neurotic, lonely teacher who has replaced food with alcohol. Benny, her brother, is an affable, amenable accountant married to the tightly wound Rachelle. Their twins, Josh and Emily, are about to celebrate their bar mitzvahs.

Benny seems content, but he relies on his nightly marijuana to relax. Richard leaves Edie and starts Internet dating, with disappointing results, while Robin finds herself drawn to her shlubby but sweet neighbour, but can't help but feel that's she's settling.

The book's structure is unusual -- not only does it flip from the viewpoint of one character to another, but it's not chronological, so some emotional bombs are dropped before we see them coming.

The Illinois-born Attenberg really has a handle on our complicated relationship with food. Though we may be disgusted at Edie's gluttony -- at one point she saves a McRib to eat last because it's "like a dessert sandwich" -- who can deny the siren call of kettle-cooked sea salt potato chips and a tub of deli onion dip, which Edie sneaks down to the kitchen to eat, even though she's supposed to be fasting for her surgery the next day -- surgery necessitated by her obesity and diabetes.

And while on the surface we may cringe at scenes of Edie gorging on platter after platter of food in a Chinese restaurant, Attenberg's descriptions of the dishes -- sticky brown noodles, "dewy, plump and slightly sweet" dumplings, "glazed chicken, briny, chewy clams swimming in a subtle black-bean gravy" -- are sure to set the mouth watering.

Attenberg gets the way we all, but perhaps Jews in particular, make food part of a ritual, both in times of celebration and of sorrow. Robin, a former fat girl, attends Passover dinner at the home of her boyfriend, and eats everything: "the gefilte fish and the matzo-ball soup and the brisket and the chicken and the chocolate-covered matzo and the caramel-covered matzo and the honey-nut cake."

At a funeral, Richard gorges on kugels and casseroles, fruit salads and rugelach, rye crackers dipped in creamed herring.

Edie's lack of control is countered by Rachelle's iron fist; she feeds her family only tasteless, nutritious meals -- "dinner was something related to kale and beets."

Attenberg might be saying something about the way attitudes toward food have changed through the generations. Edie, whose relatives came from shtetls to America, sees food as love, its abundance as a mitzvah from the new world; Rachelle rejects the fatty liverwursts and corned beef of her past and embraces Whole Foods and austerity.

For Rachelle, success is not measured by how well she can fatten up her kids, but how well she can keep them thin.

But whether fat or thin, everybody in the family is hurting. It seems as if their every attempt at happiness is thwarted, brief moments of comfort and joy outweighed by bitterness and tragedy.

It's to Attenberg's credit that despite their misery and missteps, the Middlesteins remain compelling characters in whom we can see ourselves.

Jill Wilson is the acting entertainment editor of the Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J10

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