Families in trouble
Becoming a reviewer has made me a better reader. Instead of dismissing works I don’t enjoy, I now analyze why they didn’t appeal to me: Is it something personal, for example, did a character or plot line trouble me? Does the author’s prose or writing style enhance the telling of the story for me or distract from it? Would other readers relish the book even if I didn’t find it to my taste?
Two recent novels—“The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing) and “A Town of Empty Rooms” by Karen E. Bender (Counterpoint)—left me pondering my initial reactions. Why did one unexpectedly charm me while the other left me unsatisfied, even though I admired the author’s prose and psychological insights?
Attenberg’s novel explores a family in crisis: the reverberations from Edie Middlestein’s health problems are felt through three generations. According to her doctors, Edie will die if she doesn’t change her eating habits. Unfortunately, she has no desire to modify her dietary intake.
When her husband, Richard, takes steps to protect himself from their long and unhappy marriage, their children must take charge. Their daughter, Robin, however, resents being forced to spend time with either parent. Their son, Benny, looks to avoid conflict, but is forced to become more active when his wife, Rachelle, decides she can save Edie from herself. This does leave Rachelle less time, though, to plan the upcoming b’nai mitzvah extravaganza of their twins, Josh and Emily.
Although this plot summary might make “The Middlesteins” sound maudlin, the opposite is actually true. Attenberg’s breathless and boisterous prose deftly and cleverly offers insights into each of the characters. Edie’s parents teach her by example “that food was made of love,” and never denied themselves or Edie “a bite of anything they desired.”
When writing about Edie and Richard’s first date, the author notes that although Richard was smiling, it was because he didn’t yet know that “his happiest days were behind him the minute he met [Edie].”
The twins’ b’nai mitzvah is portrayed in a very funny chapter written in the first person plural; having the event narrated by Edie and Richard’s friends was an inspired choice. The wit and wisdom offered in “The Middlesteins” were an unexpected surprise.
While Attenberg’s novel exceeded my expectations, I found myself less enthusiastic about Bender’s work. That puzzled me because the author does an excellent job dissecting Serena and Dan Shine’s marriage and delineating character. When Serena’s actions force the Shines and their two young children to move from New York City to a small town in North Carolina, they find themselves unable to communicate. Although both partners are in mourning—Serena for her father and Dan for his older brother—their grief serves to separate rather than unite them. When seeking community in their new surroundings, Dan becomes assistant leader of his son’s Boy Scout troop, while Serena joins the local synagogue. Unfortunately for both, the people they admire—the Boy Scout troop leader and the synagogue’s rabbi—may not be worthy of their devotion.
Bender shows how marital difficulties affect people’s outlook on life: “And there was, when a marriage is not good, an awareness of the brevity of one’s life when lying in bed beside a person who was angry with you. There was the lonely feeling of staring at a naked back, of wanting to reach for the other but being afraid that you would be turned down, of feeling, beside the beloved, the startling sensation of being alone.”
The author also clearly portrays the way Serena and Dan’s assumptions about each other have been overthrown, which raises feelings of insecurity about not only their marriage, but their relationship to the larger world. In addition, Bender makes vivid the excitement and agitation that occurs when parents first view their children and how their love for these young creatures can leave them breathless.
Unfortunately, I never warmed to the Shines, which made me less interested in the difficulties they faced. I grew impatient with Serena and Dan’s inability to overcome the chasm separating them. Perhaps the humor in Attenberg’s work makes the Middlesteins’ foibles more appealing, while Bender’s work has no wit to liven the gloom. While both novels have much to offer, for me, “The Middlesteins” has greater appeal.