Review: This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You (2009)

Author: Jonathan Tropper
Genre: domestic fiction
Reviewer Age Rating: 15+ (adult language, some drug and sexual content)
Website: penguin.com
Printing: 2014 paperback; 327 pages
Includes: the first three chapters of One Last Thing Before I Go

Tropper would like to dedicate the novel to…
Mom and Dad

Blurb

The death of Judd Foxman’s father marks the first time that the entire Foxman clan has congregated in years.  There is, however, one conspicuous absence: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose affair with his radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public.  Simultaneously mourning the demise of his father and his marriage, Judd joins his dysfunctional family as they reluctantly sit shiva—and spend seven days and nights under the same roof.  The week quickly spins out of control as longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed, and old passions are reawakened.  Then Jen arrives with news of her own: she’s pregnant.  This Is Where I Leave You is a riotously funny, emotionally raw novel about love, marriage, divorce, family, and the ties that bind—whether we like it or not.

Word of Mouth

One of the Best Books of the Year.
Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR Morning Edition, Library Journal

And may I go a step further—one of the best I’ve ever read.  It’s a smooth work of fiction, made easy to read for an adult, with humor.

Introduction

It starts off bluntly, immediately, humorously telling you where this story is going: the family has a hard time expressing emotions.

“Dad’s dead,” Wendy says, offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day.

And it was Dad’s (Mort’s) wish (supposedly) to bring the family—whose members can’t stand each other—together for that seven-day period known as shiva.  (Shiva/shibah, from the original hebrew literally means “seven.”)  An that’s seven days, nonconsecutive; the Jewish Sabbath came into play, and…marijuana.  Anything to help pass the time.
11:06 p.m.: DEATH IS EXHAUSTING.”

No one, including Judd himself, could remember just how many relatives and family friends there are, as it feels as if it could take forever—the process, the shaking of the hands, and the short, “crotch-level” chairs…

With the timeline narrowed in on that seven-plus-day period, the parts come in days, the episodes divvied often using literal times.  (From Wed., Chapter 4 begins: 12:15 p.m.)  And how short some chapters are, in short episodes.  Some of them only describe Judd’s dreams—either disconnected from the current plot, or concentrated on remembering the dog attack, or remembering his father—the point/purpose of this shiva.  Often enough, the elements in said dreams are explained later on.

Intimate Character Study

As result of all the concentration, you get an intimate look at the mind of a character—a male one, with all the vulnerabilities and internal struggles that apply.  Days have passed and Judd has yet to process everything that has happened already—and a one-two punch at that: prior to his father’s death, he had been cuckolded.  He would remain in a sort of shock and perpetual hatred of life for the better part of the timeline.

Oh, the unexpected adult situations that play out—at times coming at you when you least expect it.  (You know you have a great story when you can’t predict what’ll happen.)  Subject A: the nature of the scene where Judd discovers his wife, in the process of intercourse with another man, his boss, the “Man Up!” radio personality he works for, Wade Boulanger.

Wade is the sort of type that gets called an “asshole” the most.  He is thrusting when Judd enters with a birthday cheesecake for Jen.  It was supposed to be a surprise, and the surprise was on Judd.  So much so, he first thought he wasn’t even in the right house.  Not until he saw Jen’s face.  Judd has a discovery, a rush of thoughts—he snaps, and shoves the cake at Wade’s ass.  Worse, the still-lit candles set Wade’s balls on fire.

And that’s the material you can put in an R-rated movie, just barely.  The scene breaks that level.  Judd notes what her fingers were used for—besides the wedding band.  Yes, Jonathan Tropper wrote this scene, another with creative word usage.

Whew.

So right there, only three chapters in, you could tell the book wasn’t going to hold back by much.

Tease

Unfortunately for Judd, the ‘nice’ aspects that came with his disconnect, from his wife, are all out of his “unconfident” control.  One to gain weight, out of shape, he was always…sort of unappealing to the eye.  He was lucky while it lasted—his relationship with Jen, starting all the way back from her “ironic cycling,” making her laugh.  And now, he looks over and fantasizes life stories with women he passes by.  Each one, heartbreak.

Cuckolded and deprived, bereft, post-pot, barely awake, Judd is taken advantage of by Alice, a former lover—now his brother’s wife.  She wants a child.

Then there’s the ice skating Penelope, the former beauty he befriended—certainly a tease; that is, until his marriage fell apart.  And…Penny is Wade’s sister.

Complications arise, but the novel doesn’t mature those complications any more effed up than how things had gotten already.  Even scenes that could have gotten worse are interrupted, such as the one where Cole, one of the children, made a ‘T’ in potty training.  He threw the small potty on the table, shattering the table, and the T-shaped dung comically landed onto one of the plates, resulting: an inedible entrée.

Ay.

So…great pains were taken to maintain the humor.  Otherwise, the story would’ve been…well, a muddy funeral and a shiva, literally sitting for seven-plus days trying to meet and greet and hug strangers and hold things together with your psychobabbling mother who fails to find tact when she accidentally exposes her augmented breasts, your jock brothers and their wives, and a revelation or two—try not to go insane.

“The old guy just copped a feel,” Paul says, joining in.

Tropper tied each scenes with some kind of sweetness, acted or acknowledged.  No one consoled the crying Cole, so Judd held him in his arms…getting sticky.  “I make a T,” the sobbing kid said, in his toddler English.  (Or ‘immigrant English,’ as Judd put it.)  “That’s right, Cole,” Judd responded, looking at Paul’s plate.  “It is a T, and a nice one at that.”

Psychological Fiction

Part of the genre attributed to the novel is something called “psychological fiction”—part of the categorization, for the Library of Congress.  And, oh, the reviews that exist touting Topper’s work as an ‘insight into the male psyche.’  Men and their “lust and rage and sweetness”—The Washington Post.  A psychological comedy?  What?

There are quite the number of rough truths expressed in the book, told from Judd’s perspective.  And that includes the harsh reality that women want a man that make them laugh and a nine-incher, a private jet, etc., etc.

Someone always loses and sulks over his/her loss in a sporting play (one-on-one) between jocks, as depicted in one of the scenes—Paul against the youngest, Phillip.
(I have no personal experience to confirm this sulkiness to be a universal truth though.)

With a first-person POV, there are always dreams to fall back on whenever the real life (fictional) fails to bring out the accumulating emotions—the fears that one has, especially.  Judd continues to have a recurring theme of a false leg—eventually repaired by his father.  Dad?  It’s touching…but I don’t see how dreams could advance as they would in the movies—events and people carefully morphing in a very specific order.  Then again, Judd could have imagined all sorts of things leading up to said dreams… something that wasn’t quite written in the narrative.

I certainly find fault in the mentality of the “shock jock”—a mischaracterization, as if any or all of them are simply “assholes” that would, in the apologetic moment, finally admit to their “assholeness.”  Has Tropper ever met any of these guys?  Of course he doesn’t know the real Rush Limbaugh, a name dropped for the purpose of comedy.  In everything I know, the ‘Wade confession’ was pretty unreal, a realized account with a cost.

The nature of the gathering of many, many people, and the “I need distance” relationships of the immediate family make for quite the study, a “creative license” if you will to write in as many personalities as the author could come up with, the stronger of them written about more, since Judd the character would want to ignore the less interesting ones.

Summary

So there are some great things to say about the book, and also some not-so-great limitations, with Wade’s final scene as example.  The novel, in my opinion, tapers off into a relaxed dribble by the end, punctuated with, besides the passing of Mort, its title as a starter: This Is Where I Leave You.  (Judd leaves.  At least for a while.)

Besides the obvious fiction, the book is well-written.  It may descend into distraction from the reality for flow or entertainment (e.g., pop culture references on Philip’s side, not enough counter-balance), but it’s a pageturner—easy to read.  Grade: A-

2014 Film Adaptation

The Shawn Levy theatrical version, also penned by Tropper, unfortunately, severely alters the story in a weak and clichéd attempt to make the characters “more likable.”  It was given a ‘C’ by Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty.  As the saying goes, “the book is better.”

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