I’ve spent the past two evenings nose-in to Jonathan Tropper‘s novel This Is Where I Leave You. The premise is simple: Dad dies and his dying wish is that his four kids sit shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual where the deceased’s immediate family sits in short-legged chairs while everyone who’s ever even heard of the deceased comes by to visit over seven days. It’s a fairly reverent and dedicated form of grieving; a way to both remember the loved one who’s passed while physically and – theoretically, anyway – emotionally being there for those left behind to grieve. The Foxmans, however, know how to suck the reverent out of everything.
The novel’s greatest strength is found among its inhabitants: the relationships amongst siblings, between children and mother, between the Foxmans and their neighbors. Tropper succeeds at creating relationships that ebb and flow, changing not only based on the day or the mood, but also on who else is present in the room with them. You get the full sense of how people change based on who they’re interacting with, and though Tropper overuses, for my taste, ellipses, the weaker parts of the book are easily forgotten when he uncovers the meat underneath.
Judd Foxman, having recently experienced the trauma of walking in on his wife having porn-grade sex with his boss, is the perfect narrator for the story. He has neither the patience nor the luxury of sugar coating his own anger and hurt or that of his siblings, and the result is a well-paced novel version of what TV series refer to as a bottle episode. Dad’s death aggravates decades’ worth of repressed anger amongst siblings and siblings-in-law and Judd, having lost everything including his wife, his job and his home, has no reasons left to play nice. He’s vulnerable and finally able to come clean, laying everything bare without apology. Because of this he alternates between being a silent witness to marital tiffs and uncomfortable exchanges in the shiva room to instigating physical confrontations with his wife’s new lover and yelling matches with his older brother Paul.
Judd isn’t perfect in any other sense than he’s a great venue through which to tell the stories of the Foxmans. He is a throbbing, festering wound of hatred and thwarted love and misunderstood intentions. As much as the others, he is beginning to realize the unalterable circumstances he now finds himself in, plagued by both the finality of the changes he’s experienced and the replaying of the past moments when he could have avoided the path that catapulted him to his current reality. Tropper’s characters don’t just tell us how they’re feeling, they make us feel it with them, experiencing as much confusion, conflict and resignation as we read, as they do experiencing it. Tropper tells so many stories at once, defying summation and complete resolution without bogging us down with reality; the characters are rich, complicated, and permanently sad, but also funny and so devoted to one another in both extremes of human emotion that we can’t help but watch them burrow deeper into their problems, comforted only by the fact that they’re doing it together, on really short chairs.
What I Wish I’d Written:
“Please,” she says. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd.
You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, or play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.