This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
You can’t choose your family—that’s the truism which makes Jonathan Tropper’s heart-achingly witty novel This Is Where I Leave You so painfully sharp. Cutting right to the core of middle-age angst, Tropper’s story kicks into gear from the get-go when Judd Foxman arrives home unexpectedly to greet his wife with a birthday cake, only to catch her in bed with the obnoxious radio ‘shock jock’ he works with. Needless to say, he finds other uses for the cake.
However, this isn’t the only life-changing juncture Judd finds himself facing up to: He also receives the news that his father—from whom he is estranged—has died. This emotional double-whammy sets the tone for This Is Where I Leave You immediately—it’s as dry as a bone, glum yet jocular, with a heartfelt blend of humour and pathos. What sets the plot in motion, however, is his father’s dying wish that Judd returns to his childhood home to partake in the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva, which involves him reuniting with his mother, his two brothers, and his sister, to spend a week together under one roof.
Given that they’ve not seen each other in years, this is a bigger nightmare than you’d realise at first. The Foxman family is deeply dysfunctional, with each character harbouring built-up resentments and innermost secrets which slowly uncoil as the novel progresses, with arguably one of the most important ones being Judd’s discovery that his cheating wife is actually pregnant. Overall, this is what makes This Is Where I Leave You so engaging—essentially it’s how realistic these characters are handled by Tropper, exploring the Foxmans’ foibles with all the relish of a vindictive psychoanalyst and layering cringe-inducing character revelations and emotional tipping points with each turn of the page.
Where the novel falls short, however, is that despite often being very funny and containing much amusing interplay between the characters, there is obviously something repugnant about them. Perhaps this is the point, although many female readers might be put off by smatterings of casual misogyny here and there. That said, each character nonetheless has clear, fully-rounded motivations, and with Tropper’s scintillating skill at crafting believable personalities and down-to-earth dialogue, the author totally understands how to set his characters off against one another for comic effect. Ultimately, if you’re a fan of TV shows such as ‘Arrested Development’ then you’ll probably get the vibe this novel is going for, but it does lack the relatability factor some readers might crave.
It’s true that all writers are on some kind of evolutionary path—every story should consistently push you to juggle the incidental and the fundamental until you have mastery of both. It’s clear Jonathan Tropper’s writing style is a testament to his development, so This Is Where I Leave You is an expert example showing how writers can counterbalance emotional weight with character-based humour in a way which feels painfully real, but is also incisively funny. All I can say to conclude is: if you think your family is bad, then you obviously haven’t met the Foxmans.
© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.