I’ll admit that Jonathan Tropper‘s This Is Where I Leave You was on my to-read list for some time. I had heard great things — read fantastic reviews — but something about the book description did not exactly sell it for me. The idea of a family gathering to mourn their dead father while airing their dirty laundry in ever-increasing discomfort? Added to it the fact that the protagonist is dealing with his adulterous wife, who just happened to be sleeping with his own boss? Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading several warm-hearted Maeve Binchy novels back-to-back, but I just wasn’t ready to take on such a heavy and morbid story. Well folks, I am here to tell you that I was wrong. Yes, I can admit it.
I admit too — and try not to hold this against me — that it was the movie trailer that sparked my attention. Hold up. Before you do judge me, know this — I studied creative writing and film in school wanted to be a screenwriter who specialized in book adaptations or a video editor for most of my life. I love movie trailers. For fun, I took several independent studies in school to re-cut trailers for famous films. Still, the book snob in me is a bit ashamed by the fact that I let an ensemble cast, funny one-liners and an emotion-inducing trailer score be the impetus to finally pick up a book that countless reliably bookish folk had recommended.
Right — back to the book review.
The story centers around the Foxman family, who upon hearing that their father’s dying wish was for his wife and children to sit shiva following his death, return to their childhood home for seven days of mourning. Right off the bat, you realize that there is more to this novel than death and drama. Whilst dealing with the death of his father, the madness of his famous family psychologist mother, and the growing tension between his siblings as well as their significant others, protagonist Judd Foxman is also attempting to fathom the fact that his marriage is over.
Still with me? Good. Because here’s the thing — Tropper writes truly fantastic characters. Sure, there are aspects of the relationships between said characters that can be just downright uncomfortable — lifeless marriages, tired and unenthusiastic parents, would-be romances that knock the wind out of you — but somehow, you find yourself forgiving even those who betray the ones they most love. You find yourself pulling for them, all of them. Okay, perhaps not all of them, but I’ll allow you to judge each member of the ensemble for yourself.
Maybe it’s Tropper‘s fantastic use of dialogue that so easily allows you to become engrossed in the scenes playing out on the page before you. Perhaps it’s simply that anyone with siblings can relate to the fact that though you love one another a great deal, you often treat one another unkindly, because you want the best for your siblings and you rationalize that your curt judgement of one another is “tough love.”
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see your siblings as the people they’ve become. Maybe that’s why we all stay away from each other as a matter of course.
Throughout the book, Tropper weaves in deeply insightful reflections on relationships of every kind. He is particularly focused, however, on how relationships change over time between family members — how siblings go from partners-in-crime to personal villains or near strangers. He remarks that time is a bandit, and takes from us what we did not know to hold dear when we’re distracted by life. For example, Tropper notes about how as a child, you believe you’ll never actually grow up, and then one day, you realize that you did grow up when you finally stopped paying attention and the shock of it stops you in your tracks.
Childhood feels so permanent, like it’s the entire world, and then one day it’s over and you’re shoveling wet dirt onto your father’s coffin, stunned at the impermanence of everything.
Or how Tropper writes that love can take two normal people and as a pair, allow them to achieve world-class egos:
Love made us partners in narcissism, and we talked ceaselessly about how close we were, how perfect our connection was, like we were the first people in history to ever get it exactly right. We were that couple for a while, nauseatingly impervious assholes, busy staring into each others’ eyes while everyone else was trying to have a good time.
Here’s another — on how friends with parents often, in the most smug demeanor possible (intentionally or not), deflate their childless peers:
…that’s one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a real person.
Or a remark about how as one ages, they often attend more and more funerals — many of whom for peers they were not particularly close to:
The visitors are mostly senior citizens, friends and neighbors of my parents, coming to see and be seen, to pay their respects and contemplate their own impending mortality, their heart conditions and cancers still percolating below the surface, in livers and lungs and blood cells. Another of their number has fallen, and while they’re here to console my mother, you can see in their staunch, pale faces the morbid thrill of having been passed over by death.
And while the Foxman family is especially interesting and entertaining, I would caution readers to pay particular attention to the peripheral cast as well. Some of my favorite observations came from those characters allotted the least page real estate.
It would be a terrible mistake to go through life thinking that people are the sum total of what you see.
Another character given very little attention in the novel is the very person for whom everyone is mourning. While few and far between, the passages that describe the head of the Foxman clan seem to serve as clues in the mystery of why this family cannot seem to stand one another for more than an hour at a time. Present too is the remorse not just for the passing of their father, but for the lack of what could have been said before he died.
Let me also assure would-be readers that as implied in the film (which I strongly suspect plays up the comedic aspect of the novel) there are, in fact, rather hilarious scenes. For example, Judd Foxman shares rather funny aspects of his personality and childhood.
In third grade, I briefly suffered from the paranoid delusion that when I went to the bathroom during class, the blackboard became a television screen and my entire class watched me piss.
Other comedic scenes take place during the shiva itself, when Judd Foxman finds he has to fend off the mothers of single women who suddenly see him as a last-ditch effort to marry off their daughters. But the best scenes — those for which I cannot possibly imagine were left on the cutting room floor in the film adaptation — occur between the central cast, Mother Foxman and her four children.
Ultimately this book is not just about death and mourning, but about how to live, how to learn from our mistakes, how to accept one another for who we inevitably grow up to be, and how to love one another while we can.
You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, of play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.