This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

6224935Fiction — print. Orion, 2009. 339 pgs. Library copy.

The Foxman family is forced to confront painful feelings about their familial bonds and the realities of the four sibling’s collapsing relationships with their significant others as they sit shiva for seven days following the death of their patriarch. None of the siblings want to sit shiva given that their father was never one for religion or God, but their mother and their childhood friend turned rabbi once known by the nickname “Boner” insists sitting shiva was their father’s dying wish.

At the center of the story is Judd, the second son, who recently discovered his wife of nearly ten years, Jen, has been engaged in a fourteen-month affair with his boss. Judd has moved out of the house he and Jen shared and plans to move on with his life — an old flame he once made a pact to marry if they were both single at forty is conveniently still living in his hometown — until Jen stops by to pay her respects to the Foxman family and to inform Judd that she’s pregnant with his baby.

“You think you have all the time in the world, and then your father dies. You think you’re happily married, and then your wife fucks your boss. You think your brother is an asshole, and then you discover that it’s been you all along. If nothing else, it’s been educational.” (pg. 278)

Judd’s older brother, Paul, took over the family’s sporting goods business a few years ago having lost out on his opportunity to attend college following a horrific dog attach. Paul’s wife (and Judd’s former girlfriend whom he lost his virginity with) is desperately unhappy in their marriage due to their inability to conceive a child. And the youngest son, Phillip, is the screw-up of the family. In and out of jail, Phillip returns home with his forty-something former therapist turned girlfriend and life couch intent on proving that he has managed to turn his life around.

The middle child and only daughter, Wendy, married a hedge fund manager who remains glued to his cell phone at all hours ignoring their three children and his wife’s unhappiness. Judd, of course, picks up on her unhappiness and does not fail to notice that returning to their childhood home has given his sister the opportunity to reconnect with an old boyfriend, who ended up brain damaged after a bar fight when both were in their twenties. The mother of this old flame is a longtime friend of the Foxman matriarch and continues to hover over the family throughout the seven days they sit shiva together.

This synopsis sounds like a complete train wreck, and I think part of the reason I finished it in one sitting was because I just couldn’t look away from the carnage. It’s profane with the kind of dirty humor I don’t typically enjoy. (The book, unsurprisingly, was adapted into a movie in 2014.) Yet there’s also something so funny and insightful about this book  that compelled to me to keep reading despite the soap opera drama at the center of the plot.

Tropper manages to make all his damaged, over-the-top characters into people I still cared about and empathized with. (The one exception being the brother-in-law, who never managed to stop being a caricature in a suit.) I don’t want them to be my family and I’m not particularly sure I’d want to be any of their friends, but I did enjoy the different insights and dynamics each character brought to the story. Judd’s struggle over whether or not to walk away from Jen and their baby given how she’s destroyed all the trust between them was surprisingly insightful and raw given how this book began.

And, at one point, Judd muses on how all siblings reach the point where they’ve changed and grown in ways their siblings weren’t there to see because they no longer live in the same house. He doesn’t understand why his sister would stay with her husband — let alone keep having babies with him — and yet he also recognizes that he doesn’t really know Wendy anymore. Same for Paul, whom Judd feels completely disconnected with after he cost his brother his college scholarship, and Phillip, whom Judd has always resented as the spoiled baby of the family. And they don’t quite know him because they weren’t there when he and Jen lost their first child or when he caught his wife cheating.

For all its sadness, though, I never felt manipulated by Tropper’s writing as he never employed a “sucker punch of emotion” to make you suddenly sympathize with an unlikable character. The revelation of Judd’s past loss and the way his siblings all grapple with their grief over losing their father was well-paced and well-written. I particularly enjoyed one scene between Judd and Phillip when it suddenly strikes them their father died and how that loss transcends the walls they’ve put up between each other over the years. It made all the soap opera elements of their lives worth it to see.

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