It’s easy enough to see Edie Middlestein — 62 pounds when we meet her as a 5-year-old soothed out of a tantrum by a hunk of rye bread, 340 pounds of elderly diabetic at the height of the novel that bears her family name — as a grotesque, a compilation of every joke about Jewish grandmothers and food packed into a single frame. After all, Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins (Oct. 23, Grand Central) begins with Edie’s parents’ belief that “food was made of love, and was what made love, and they could never deny themselves a bite of anything they desired.”
By the time she’s at her heaviest, her weight exerts the kind of gravitational pull that knocks the rest of her family off its axis. Her husband Richard abruptly leaves her, saying he can’t keep watching her kill herself while simultaneously drawing their adult children into her dangerous orbit; neurotic, defensive schoolteacher Robin drinks more and sulks, while the ordinarily content Benny’s hair falls out in clumps. The Middlesteins are a family in extremity, and Attenberg has assembled the ingredients for a certain kind of middle-American dysfunctional-family dramedy.
So it’s surprising when Edie’s daughter-in-law Rachelle goes into her own tailspin, jealously managing her family’s diet and, for herself, focusing “on cutting her food into the tiniest of squares, which she could then chew thoughtfully and slowly, as if she were savoring every vitamin, as if she could feel each bite extending her life span” — a reaction that looks no less obsessive and damaging than Edie’s overeating. Attenberg sidesteps the easy jokes (well, most of them; there is the carefully drilled hip-hop dance number Benny’s twins perform at their b’nai mitzvah against the backdrop of a chocolate fountain), but even as her characters stretch to extremes, The Middlesteins resists reducing even its least-complex characters to simple moral dilemmas.
And that’s not the easiest thing to do — at least not judging from James Meek’s oddly divided The Heart Broke In (Oct. 2, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The story of Bec and Alex’s relationship starts sweet and charming, enlivened by details like Alex’s inability to focus — his ability as a geneticist stems from his failure as a musician to gain the “temporary personality of the unself-conscious artist he hoped for” because his drumming was just “an elaborate form of fidgeting.” As their romance grows, their world expands, with professional success and family tragedy and a desire for children introducing themes of science against morality, and celebrity against privacy. But grafted uncomfortably onto the unfolding romance is the story of Bec’s brother Ritchie, a former rock star caught with a 16-year-old contestant on his variety show and now being blackmailed by a priggish tabloid editor who used to date his sister. Where Bec flits between science and story in a way that enlightens both, Meek uses Ritchie to ramp up conflict artificially, imposing characters and dilemmas on his fragile cast to heighten their struggles into moral extremes. This is unfortunate, because the best parts of his book happen in the sweet, moderate parts when the heat and the pressure are off.
And there’s no reason to strap that kind of question-begging armature around a novel: Plenty of moral danger can be wrung out of even a two- or three-person cast. Kathleen Alcott’s short, intense novel in vignettes, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets (Sept. 11, Other Press), restricts itself almost entirely to the relationship between brothers James and Jackson and narrator Ida, raised closely by their respective single parents, through the disintegration of Jackson and Ida’s love affair as adults. Alcott’s writing is chilly and minimal, deadpan and precise, charting Ida’s failure “to merge with a bloodstream not mine.” And the love triangle she describes, among children who “had found adulthood long before their peers” and the younger brother who watches from his own bed across the room, is both delicate and deeply, incestuously creepy.