If, while reading Jami Attenbergs latest novel, you find yourself craving a meal say, for example, the exquisite flavors of lamb-cumin noodles you are not alone.
The book is a Rorschach test for peoples relationships with food, says Attenberg, who appears Monday at Books & Books to talk about her tragi-comic novel The Middlesteins (Grand Central, $15 in paper). Most people say, I really wanted to order Chinese food when I read it. Every so often people say, I never wanted to eat again. . . . I tried hard to to make the food sound delicious, but the book has more to do with how the reader feels about food than anything.
The Middlesteins are a Jewish family living in the Chicago suburbs, and mother Edie, who weighs more than 300 pounds, is ailing but not doing much to improve her health. She thinks nothing of hitting the McDonalds drive-thru, then Burger King, then driving to her favorite Chinese place, one after the other. Her daughter-in-law Rachelle sums up the familys fears best: Shes going to die. . . . and I dont know if we can stop her.
But Edie is not the only Middlestein who seeks comfort and escape in all the wrong places. Her husband Richard dreams of having a sex life again and leaves Edie, facing an operation, to seek it. Their adult children Benny and Robin suffer from their own addictions (pot and booze, respectively).
But as a subject, food had a universal appeal to Attenberg, who lives in Brooklyn.
Alcohol or drugs or cigarettes . . . you can quit those things and never have to deal with them, says the author of the novels The Kept Man and The Melting Season and the story collection Instant Love. But with food its a complicated relationship every single day. Its talked about in the media; its sold to you, marketed to you. Its your life blood.
Q. What was the inspiration for The Middlesteins?
Originally there were three threads. I wanted to write about the community in which I grew up, which I had never done before. I never really wanted to. Then I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and thought I could write about where I grew up. I sat on the idea for a year, but something about the intimacy of the smalltown community where I grew up . . . it was a small town, and now its a sprawling suburb. I was also interested in writing about a family in distress and how you contend with a family member who doesnt want to take care of herself. And then I arrived at food.
Q. Was writing about your hometown difficult?
My family remains intact; my parents are still married. Theyre not Edie and Richard. They go to the gym and eat write and are pretty healthy people. But I did feel that even though these characters are fictional, I knew them. There were bits and pieces that resemble people I may have met once. I started writing with no hesitation; I knew exactly who they were. I invented them, but I felt like I recognized them immediately. It was a strange experience. It was fun . . . . I havent lived there in 20 years, but I needed to have that distance to have perspective. I could not have written this right out of college. I definitely needed to grow up.
Q. Food and how we eat is a popular subject these days. Is that part of why you chose to write about it?
People are discussing it and writing about it . . . . [the subject] feels very heightened. There are a lot of great things about food, but its something thats an eternal struggle in our contemporary society, where and how food is made, where its coming from, how much to consume. There are so many layers to it.
Q. Have you ever had a problem with eating?
Its really entertaining to go out in the world and have people go, Youre not fat at all! which is great. Its nice. But I dont think of myself as a thin person at all. I weighed 50 pounds more a decade ago. I grew up a heavy kid. So I have an understanding of what Edies going through. Maybe I wouldnt hit three fast food restaurants in a day, but I could hit one in a day. I try not to do that. But I understand Edies mentality; I have been in the place where youre doing things that are bad, and you cant seem to stop yourself, when youre looking for something to hide in.
Q. Edies food addiction is dangerous, but you also make a point of writing evocatively about food. Why?
I couldnt just show the one side of it. I wouldve done a disservice to the food! Food and love are all intertwined at our core level. It can be a very nurturing, wonderful, loving thing.
Q. Whats your comfort food?
It sort of depends on the weather. In the wintertime I like macaroni and cheese. We have a macaroni and cheese club where we try to find the best mac and cheese in Brooklyn.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Heralds book editor.