In The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg shows you can go home again | Bleader

In The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg shows you can go home again



It's always exciting when you come across your own home turf in a book. Yeah, yeah, literature is supposed to be about broadening your horizons and bringing you out of yourself and introducing you to new worlds, but that happens all the time. Seeing someplace you know well through someone else's eyes—now, that's something rare and worth getting excited about.

Jami Attenberg's latest novel, The Middlesteins, just out in paperback, happens to be set in an unnamed northwest suburb that is clearly, at least to those of us who grew up there, Buffalo Grove. There's one geographical clue: the family matriarch, Edie Middlestein, works as a lawyer "for corporations developing shopping plazas all along Dundee Road, from I-94 to Route 53." The rest, well, it's there. Except for the one thing I most wish existed. But I'll get to that in a second.

The McDonalds that figures in a pivotal scene is obviously the one across the street from Buffalo Grove High School. It's not described in any great detail, but until the late 90s, it was the only McDonalds in Buffalo Grove and, therefore, sort of a magical place if you were a kid. (It's not quite as magical for Edie Middlestein, unless you count epiphanies as magical.) And the synagogue the Middlesteins attend has to be the same one my family went to, not only because of "the wall of gold leaves embossed with the names of donors," but also because the Middlestein daughter, Robin, describes her Hebrew school experience as "two hours of hell, three times a week." Only kids from our synagogue had to go to Hebrew school that often. It was an early lesson in martyrdom.

I confirmed the McDonalds thing with Attenberg during a phone interview yesterday. I was too embarrassed to ask about the Hebrew school.

"The book was a good opportunity for me to mark down where I grew up in the sand," Attenberg said. "There's a lot of urbanization around the country. There are still some stretches in Buffalo Grove that are random. It calms me down."

  • Attenberg
Me, I spend more time missing the random stretches that have already disappeared that used to calm me down, like the cornfield across the road from my high school that is now a housing development, and most of my thoughts about Buffalo Grove are about how much I hated growing up there, how boring and conformist it was. A few members of the Middlestein clan think so, too, but Attenberg does not. She even thought it was worthy of further research and consulted—and recommends—The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, Irving Cutler's study of Jewish migration from the city to places like Buffalo Grove.

And she manages to render even the strip malls somewhat lovely, or at least full of life:

Later, in the car, in the parking lot, outside the sports bar, where two women in their twenties leaned against a wall sharing one cigarette, outside the 7-Eleven, where a UPS man purchased a two-liter of Coca-Cola and two overcooked hot dogs drenched in cheese sauce, outside a cell-phone store, where a bored salesgirl working her way through community college slumped behind a counter texting a girl who had pissed her off at a party the night before, outside a Chinese restaurant where the food was made with love . . . outside all of this Edie and Robin sat.

How much easier is it to describe a place you came to later because you wanted to be there? (And, to be fair, Attenberg does that too, with her adopted home of Brooklyn in a lovely passage about how the view of Manhattan at night can, for a young person, make you feel like you are really living for the first time in your life. Especially if you come from a place like Buffalo Grove.)

But the one thing I most wish existed—and, apparently, a lot of Buffalo Grove-area readers of The Middlesteins as well, if the reaction at one of Attenberg's readings there is any indication—the thing that would distinguish our town from all the other bland suburbs that turned their cornfields into tract housing and Walmarts, is purely a figment of Attenberg's imagination.

That would be the Golden Unicorn, that strip mall Chinese restaurant where the cook makes everything with love:

Platter after platter of sizzling, decadent, rich, sodium-sugar-drenched food. Steaming, plush pork buns, and bright green broccoli in thick lobster sauce, sticky brown noodles paired with sweet shrimp and glazed chicken, briny, chewy clams swimming in a subtle black-bean gravy. Cilantro-infused scallion pancakes. A dozen dumplings stuffed with a curiously, addictively spicy seafood.

Reading that again just made me really hungry.

"I wanted this place to have existed," Attenberg says almost apologetically. "I wrote it into existence."

If it did exist, I am almost positive it would not be as neglected as it is in the book. It would make a killing. Especially on Christmas.

I should probably say something here about the actual plot of The Middlesteins. It's about how Edie Middlestein, 60 years old and overweight for almost all her life, is eating herself to death, and the reactions of her husband, children, and grandchildren, who of course all have issues of their own. But since the book came out last October, and since it hit the New York Times best-seller list and got great reviews and blurbed by Jonathan Franzen, and since there are few things people love discussing more than body image and their relationship with food and judging others, Attenberg is, understandably, kind of sick of talking about these things. If you would like to read her thoughts, go here and here and, especially, here.

Now she's working on a new novel about a woman who owned a movie theater on the Bowery in New York from the 1920s to the '40s, and trying to figure out how to write about the past with a modern sensibility. She's also reveling in not being broke anymore. "A year ago, I was couch surfing," she says. "I couldn't afford the rent on my apartment, so I was driving around the country and staying with friends. Writing is a really hard way to make a living. The most gratifying thing is that people are actually reading this thing. I'm really grateful for anyone who gives a shit about this book."

Jami Attenberg will be participating in the Interview Show tonight at the Hideout (6:30 PM, 1354 W. Waubansia,, $8). She's really excited about it.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.