Jami Attenberg
Jami Attenberg

‘Middlesteins’ author in S.F. with new novel to nosh on

Food and the associations it calls up — hunger, love, sustenance, cultural connections and comfort, to name a forkful — are never far from writer Jami Attenberg’s thoughts. And they often appear as the main course in her books and articles.

Attenberg’s breakthrough 2012 novel “The Middlesteins” focuses on how a Jewish American family in suburban Chicago finds, or fails to find, nourishment. In her just-released work of fiction, “All Grown Up,” her 40ish, single protagonist, Andrea Bern, a smart but unhappy New Yorker, relishes the lunches of whitefish salad and bagels she shares with her mother, an old leftie Jewish activist.

cover art for "all grown up"What, Andrea asks despairingly, will her mother do about procuring Jewish deli when she moves from Manhattan to an uber-gentile town in New Hampshire? (She is moving there to help her son and his wife care for an ailing infant.) “Grandchild trumps Jews,” the mom, Evelyn, replies.

That episode, and a chapter in which Andrea and Evelyn stack their plates high with lox, rye bread, capers and onion at a memorial service, are among the most fundamentally Jewish elements in “All Grown Up,” the author said in a recent interview.

The intersection of good nosh and good talk is where a lot of “Jewish mothers and daughters can connect,” said Attenberg, who will be talking about “All Grown Up” at Booksmith in San Francisco on March 22.

“Andrea is very culturally Jewish,” she continued, expanding on her character’s backstory. A product of the Upper West Side, Andrea went to a select public high school in Manhattan, has been peripherally involved in the city’s art scene for many years and has a love-hate relationship with her psychotherapist, as well as with her mother.

In “All Grown Up,” she is often buying provisions at a trendy grocery, cooking up a fancy meal, showing off the glistening pots and pans that dangle from a ceiling rack in her Brooklyn kitchen or preparing to savor lunch or dinner at Balthazar or another expensive New York eatery.

Attenberg acknowledges that she shares her character’s interest in all things gustatory. She had a first-person piece in the Forward a few years back in which she and her father reminisce about Jewish deli, and she has written how hard it is to find a good bagel in New Orleans, where she spends several months each year in winter retreat from her main digs in Brooklyn.

But, cautioned Attenberg, readers of “All Grown Up” should not conclude that because she and Andrea share other traits — such as age (40-something), religious identity (Jewish) and Brooklyn neighborhood (Williamsburg) — that they are leading parallel lives.

Indeed, Attenberg’s own story is nothing like Andrea’s. She grew up in a happy family in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, a northwest Chicago suburb that is now heavily Jewish but was not particularly so 25 or so years ago, when she was writing stories for her high school newspaper.

“There was a cornfield in my backyard,” Attenberg recalled. “My parents moved there when the area was just developing, and they were participants in building the community and the synagogue, Congregation Beth Judea, where I had my bat mitzvah. At first there were not many Jewish families — maybe one or two other students in my classes at school — and we held High Holy Day services at the local high school.”

I was writing little stories when I was 5 years old. That’s all I ever wanted to do.

And, unlike Andrea, who has harbored ambivalence about giving up a career as a visual artist for two decades, Attenberg has always been focused on her vocation.

“I was writing little stories when I was 5 years old,” she said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Attenberg studied in a writing program at Johns Hopkins University that included titans such as John Barth and Stephen Dixon. Following graduation, she moved to New York, earning her keep during the day as a web-based copywriter and producer while writing fiction in the evening and on weekends. Her first book, the short story collection “Instant Love,” was published in 2006, and was quickly followed by two novels, “The Kept Man” and “Melting Season.”

But it was “The Middlesteins” that put her on the literary map.

“No one had noticed that I had written three previous books,” Attenberg wryly commented. “It wasn’t until ‘The Middlesteins’ that I knew how bad my career as a writer was.”

Waxing culinary in praise of “The Middlesteins,” Washington Post book critic Ron Charles wrote, “[A]s any deli patron knows, ‘There are sandwiches and then there are sandwiches. [Attenberg] combines the rather ordinary ingredients of her fourth novel to make something worth chewing on.”

Suddenly, Attenberg was getting invitations from the Jewish book circuit, which included synagogue and Hadassah engagements and book fairs. To her great surprise, she was frequently being paid for her appearances.

Her follow-up, “Saint Mazie,” a historical novel based on the life of Mazie Gordon, a Jewish ticket-taker at a Lower East Side movie theater during the Great Depression, received warm reviews in 2015.

Though just released, “All Grown Up” has been racking up positive advance notice from the publishing industry. Both Booklist and Kirkus Reviews have given it starred reviews, with Booklist noting, “Andrea’s story is stinging, sweet, and remarkably fleshed out in relatively few pages. Attenberg follows her best-selling family novel … with a creative, vivid tableau of one woman’s whole life … which [she] conveys with immense, aching charm.”

Attenberg has secured a two-book deal, but she is tight-lipped about the follow-up to “All Grown Up.” She did allow, however, that one of her “dreams is to write a 1970s Chicago novel.”

Jami Attenberg book talk, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22 at Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F. Free. booksmith.com

“All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages)

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.