Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A dysfunctional family you'll love

We all think that our families are weird, but in a good way. Take mine, for instance. We have arguments all the time. No family lunch or dinner is complete without one of us raising his or her voice over the table. Yes, despite these unfortunate episodes, we still love our families; we learn to live with one another's whims and idiosyncrasies.

In Jonathan Tropper's latest novel, This Is Where I Leave You, we get to meet one of the most dysfunctional families in contemporary fiction -- the Foxmans. The novel starts with the death of the father, who, as part of his last wishes, instructs his wife and all his sons and daughter to sit shiva. This custom entails all the first-degree relatives to observe a seven-day period of mourning wherein they sit in small chairs and receive visitors in their home. The sitting shiva practice is the focal point of the novel and provides us a glimpse of all the Foxmans' dirty laundry.

Tropper chooses the middle son, Judd Foxman, as his main character. Judd is recently separated from his wife, whom he caught having sex in their bedroom with his boss. Naturally, because it is his boss that is involved in the illicit affair, he also finds himself unemployed. Judd's older brother, Paul, manages the sporting goods stores, their family business, and has been trying for the longest time to have a baby with his wife, Alice. Wendy, their only female sibling has three kids and is married to Barry, a workaholic who's into finance and who's using his BlackBerry all the time. Philip personifies everything that a youngest sibling is -- carefree, perpetually in trouble, good with the women, and basically a smart-ass. Hillary, their mother (who is also my favorite character in the novel), is a 60-year-old with breast implants who's also a very successful author of a book on child-raising. Hillary can talk about anything in front of her kids -- sex, bowel movement, embarrassing moments -- much to the annoyance of her brood.

Picture a sit-com where the family members are constantly arguing and one-upping each other. Now add superb characterizations and crisp dialogue. What you have is This Is Where I Leave You, a novel so entertaining and engaging that you can read it in a day. Tropper's characterizations are so multi-faceted that there's always something surprising to be discovered in each character. For example, when Judd learns that his ex-wife is pregnant with his baby, it is only when he realizes how he misses his father so much. Hillary, much to the surprise of everyone, comes out of the closet when she French kisses her best friend in front of her children.

The Foxmans are a family not known to show their emotions to one another. They choose to shroud their true feelings with insults, sarcasm, and evasiveness. I believe this is true in most families, and Tropper captures this unhealthy family habit very realistically in his novel. This Is Where I Leave You, for all its outrageously funny moments, isn't too hard to swallow. If you've read Augusten Burroughs memoir, Running with Scissors, you'll find yourself questioning whether all these events happened; most of them don't ring true. With Tropper's novel, you believe his narrative because, somehow, you found yourself in the same situation with you family. How many of us get red in the face every time our parents mention a particularly embarrassing habit we've had as children? Yes, most of us can relate to that. This Is Where I Leave You, despite being a fictional work, is entirely believable.

There are a lot of hysterical moments in the novel that you'll find yourself literally laughing out loud. For instance, the scene when Judd catches his wife in bed with his boss is so memorable. I won't give anything away except that it involves candles, cake, and inopportune ejaculation. Another noteworthy episode involves a joint, a fire detector, and a Jewish temple service. Trust me, Tropper finds a way to connect these seemingly unrelated elements.

We all love dysfunctional families. And we love the novels that feature them -- Irving's The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, Franzen's The Corrections, Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, Enright's The Gathering, Lutz's The Spellman Files. We love reading about their weirdness. Somehow, getting to know these fictional families make us feel that our families are, ummm, normal. I can't recommend this book enough. This Is Where I Leave You is honest, graphic, funny, and touching.

Read this book if:
  1. You love dysfunctional families.
  2. You feel you're the only normal person in your family.
  3. You need a good laugh.


Anonymous said...

Peter, I believe it when you say this book is :"honest, graphic, funny, and touching". I love Tropper's direct and humurous style. He's really one cool author. I have to get my hands on this new book! :)

Anonymous said...

Oops, humorous not humurous. Hee, hee!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Jo! I'm now on the hunt for other novels by Tropper. He comes up with very well-written novels!

Vivienne said...

What a fabulous review. You have definitely sold it to me. I shall add it to my list. I could do with a laugh.

Jenny said...

Sounds great! I just borrowed another of his books from the library, How to Kiss a Widower, or something like that b/c I've heard he's a great author! Can't wait to read this one too.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Nice review! I loved this book too - one of my Top 5 for 2009 for sure. And I agree that the scene in which Judd catches his wife in bed is utterly hysterical.

My favorite character is Phillip - he's trying to get it together, but doesn't quite yet have the maturity to pull it off. And he's a gold mine for one-liners, too. For instance, "It was really nice of Bon Jovi to stop by."

Anyway, if you missed it, here was my review of the book:


Tina said...

New author for's definitely going on the list, if for no other reason than to compare Jewish and Italian dysfunction! LOL

Anonymous said...

This sounds fantastic Peter, what a great review too. If you like disfunctional families and havent read Mark Haddon's 'A Spot of Bother' I would urge you to give it a go!

Indigo said...

Despite my huge pile of TBR books that are about ready to topple over at any given've convinced me to add yet another book to it. Thanks for the heads up on this one. (Hugs)Indigo

jspeyton said...

I'm extremely happy to hear that you liked this book. It's been sitting on my shelf for a few months. Just as soon as I finish one of the books in my "currently reading" pile, I'm definitely starting this one. I could use a good laugh.

Diane said...

I LOVE books about dysfunctional families, especially since I am the product of one...LOL

Thanks for posting about this book Peter!

Manech said...

Dysfunctional families really look good in print. Nice review. I discovered two good writers because of it: tropper and you. :)

Suko said...

Terrific review! I may need to add this to my TBR mountain. :D