The Middlesteins Big Ray

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

By Jami At­ten­berg Ser­pent’s Tail, 228pp, $27.99 By Michael Kim­ball Blooms­bury Cir­cus, 182pp, $29.99

THE Cen­tres for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion has an an­i­mated graphic on its web­site that charts the preva­lence of obe­sity in the US be­tween 1985 and 2010. You can watch as a map of the US trans­forms from a patch­work of white and light blue (ar­eas in which no data was avail­able or in which less than 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion was obese) to a smooth sweep of yel­low, red and ma­roon (ar­eas in which 20 per cent to 24 per cent, 25 per cent to 29 per cent and more than 30 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are obese).

It is a star­tling sight, not just be­cause it makes clear the scale of the pub­lic health cri­sis faced by na­tions such as the US and Aus­tralia, but be­cause of the speed of the trans­for­ma­tion. In a gen­er­a­tion obe­sity has gone from be­ing a fringe con­cern to a prob­lem af­flict­ing more than a third of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. The Aus­tralian sit­u­a­tion is not much bet­ter.

The bat­tle of the bulge is a sta­ple of pop­u­lar mag­a­zines and has been turned into en­ter­tain­ment on tele­vi­sion shows such as The Big­gest Loser. But in fic­tion, obe­sity and its at­ten­dant anx­i­eties have re­mained largely in­vis­i­ble.

Why this should be is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Yet it’s pos­si­ble at least part of an an­swer lies in the two nov­els un­der re­view, each of which seeks to grap­ple with the ques­tion, only to emerge baf­fled in pro­duc­tive ways.

Of the two Middlesteins that it’s Jami At­ten­berg’s The is the more con­ven­tion­ally re­ward­ing. An emo­tion­ally ex­pan­sive, so­cially ca­pa­cious por­trait of a mid­dle-class Jewish fam­ily set in Chicago, it charts what hap­pens when 60-some­thing phar­ma­cist Richard Mid­dlestein de­cides to leave his mor­bidly obese wife, Edie.

The shock­waves from this rup­ture rip­ple through the lives of Richard and Edie’s adult chil­dren, Benny and Robin, Benny’s body­ob­sessed wife, Rachelle, and Benny and Rachelle’s ado­les­cent chil­dren, Josh and Emily.

This present-day nar­ra­tive is re­lated from the of­ten com­pet­ing points of view of the var­i­ous Middlesteins and sev­eral other char­ac­ters whose lives are touched by the dis­in­te­gra­tion of this once-happy fam­ily unit, per­haps most im­por­tantly Ken­neth Song, the Chi­nese restau­ra­teur who be­comes in­volved with Edie af­ter Richard leaves her.

Yet run­ning through the novel is an­other, his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, de­pict­ing the jour­ney of Edie and her fam­ily from their be­gin­nings in the af­ter­math of World War II, to the pas­sion­ate, politi­cised world of 1950s Ju­daism, to Richard’s de­ci­sion to strike out into the largely gen­tile sub­urbs of Chicago’s north­west and open a string of pharmacies, cater­ing to ‘‘ all the other lonely Jews who had moved north­west of the city . . . in the 70s, look­ing for an af­ford­able new home and easy com­mute, not think­ing far ahead enough as to how they would build a com­mu­nity for them­selves’’.

And then on to the present, to the chil­dren of those pi­o­neers, who have been sub­sumed into a con­tem­po­rary, ho­mogenised Amer­ica in which the old di­vi­sions of creed and colour mean less.

What emerges, as the novel pro­gresses, is a rich and of­ten sur­pris­ingly mov­ing por­trait of the ways in which his­tory and per­son­al­ity col­lide, whether in the form of Richard’s stum­bling at­tempts to ad­just to a world that seems to have left him be­hind by em­brac­ing in­ter­net dat­ing or Josh and Emily’s fury

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