By Jami Attenberg
In Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne penned an immortal line in the heart of “Meditations XVII” that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Or, in the instance of Edie Middlestein, no woman.
Thus, as Edie over the years seeks refuge and solace in food, in massive and indiscriminate quantities of anything and everything, as she withdraws into herself, shields herself with layers of drooping fat, impervious to the pleadings of those who reach to help her, including her husband Richard, she sets off disruption in the Middlestein clan. It erupts with Richard leaving her, causing himself to become the object of scorn, for how could someone married so long to Edie desert her in her hour of desperate need? (It is an unsavory act but one seen often in real life on our national stage.)
As Edie forks and spoons herself to death, in close third-person, author Attenberg takes us into the minds of her family, Richard, son Benny and daughter-in-law Rachelle, grandchildren Josh and Emily, daughter Robin and her boyfriend Daniel, and a cast of friends spread over Chicago’s northern suburbs. In short, everybody is neurotic, sort of like the cast of a Woody Allen film, and readers get full doses of their worries, concerns, feelings of inadequacies, and other forms of angst.
Attenberg’s tale serves to remind us that as clichéd as Donne’s words might seem today, the guy was right: when that clog drops into the abyss, everybody feels it.
What makes the novel particularly rewarding is the distinctive voice Attenberg employs. It’s familiar, friendly, a bit stereotypical, better though to put us firmly in the place of the characters, making them more like flesh and blood people. One flaw, however, occurs when Attenberg takes us to twins Josh and Emily’s b’nai mitzvah. She switches from the intimate voice of family to that of an unidentified couple. It’s jarring, though not nearly as problematic in pushing you out of the novel as the switch to distant third-person in The Help, also at a party.
(Incidentally, for perhaps the most riotous bar mitzvah put to paper, read Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. You’ll be glad you did.)
Recommended for reminding us that each thing we do, even if we don’t fully realize it, affects others near and wide. w/c