Buffalo Grove writer comes home in print
Jami Attenberg, author of ‘The Middlesteins’
7 p.m. Nov. 8
The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
(773) 293-2665 www.bookcellarinc.com
2 p.m. Nov. 11
Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie
(847) 676-2230 or barnesandnoble.com
7 p.m. Nov. 12
Indian Trails Library, 355 Schoenbeck Road, Wheeling
(847) 459-4100 or www.indiantrailslibrary.org
Updated: November 1, 2012 10:12AM
It took leaving the Chicago suburbs to bring Jami Attenberg back.
The novelist grew up in northwest suburban Buffalo Grove. She’s lived all over the country since then and found that the more time she spent away, the more she missed this area.
Since she can’t move back, the Brooklyn-based author did the next best thing: she set her new novel, The Middlesteins, smack in the town she grew up in and surrounded her characters with sights and sounds familiar from her childhood.
The Middlesteins, Attenberg’s fourth novel, is being called her breakout book. It’s been chosen as a Best Book of Fall by numerous publications and has been previewed in the likes of Vanity Fair; O, the Oprah Magazine, People and Marie Claire. Jonathan Franzen has praised it and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review.
Despite the national accolades, Chicago-area readers will find it resonates with home.
“This is obviously a work of fiction,” says Attenberg. “But it’s set in my community, where I grew up. It’s a Jewish family and I’m Jewish..”
Although the book is similar in ways to Attenberg’s own life, it is by no means autobiographical.
The mother, Edie, suffers from a compulsive eating disorder which has her weighing in at 350 pounds and forces her family to pick sides in her battle.
Her husband Richard is a pharmacist who has buckled for years under the weight of Edie’s strong-armed criticism. He leaves her after 30 years of marriage, unable to watch her kill herself with food any longer.
Their daughter Robin has Edie’s cynicism and sharp retorts, but is unable and unwilling to do much more for her mother other than blame her father. Robin’s brother Benny is a pot-smoking, father of two, married to Rachelle who suffers her own form of compulsion in trying to keep her family healthy and fit while saving her mother-in-law.
Hunger and emptiness are a central theme in the novel, both literally and metaphorically. Attenberg so lovingly describes the Edie’s food longings that even someone who has never understood a food compulsion will be moved by her lush and almost erotic portrayals of food.
What Attenberg wanted to explore was the boundary line for overeating. Since food is necessary for existence, eating disorders are harder to control than say cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.
“I’m really interested in that line between passion and excess,” she says. “I’m interested in extremes. Things can feel good but when they go on too long, that line often gets blurred.”
Judaism also plays a prominent role, in the novel. A sub-plot involves Rachelle busily planning her twins’ extravagant b’nai mitzvah. Most of the characters are Jewish. Seder feasts and sitting shiva weave in tenets of Judaism and form a kind of kind of base and commonality for the characters.
“When I started writing the book, it was from Robin’s perspective and she was rejecting it (her faith,)” said Attenberg. “But I didn’t set out to write a Jewish novel, it’s a part of who these people are.” She pauses. “But it was cool to explore it. I really wanted to dig deeper into how different people reject and interpret the Jewish culture.”
Her original focus was on how the people in Edie’s life were affected by her overeating. When Attenberg realized that she needed to give Edie her own voice, she spoke with doctors and people who had struggled with eating disorders.
Edie is not a stereotyped character, she embodies a fullness and richness often lacking in overweight characters.
“I really wasn’t interested in exploring the derogatory side of obesity,” says Attenburg. “I wanted to write from a compassionate place.”
The result is an engaging, complex book which, lucky for us, is filled with glimpses of familiar streets, stores and scenery.
“This is by far my favorite book of mine,” says Attenberg. “I feel such fondness for it and the characters. It was very comforting to write about the suburbs of Chicago because I knew it so well; I could see it in my head. It was like visiting home, in a way.”