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Sunday, February 24, 2013

'This Is Where I Leave You' by Jonathan Tropper

From the BLURB:

The death of Judd Foxman’s father marks the first time that the entire Foxman family—including Judd’s mother, brothers, and sister—have been together in years. Conspicuously absent: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose fourteen-month affair with Judd’s radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public.

Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the demise of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch’s dying request: to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family.

As the week quickly spins out of control, longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed, and old passions reawakened. For Judd, it’s a weeklong attempt to make sense of the mess his life has become while trying in vain not to get sucked into the regressive battles of his madly dysfunctional family. All of which would be hard enough without the bomb Jen dropped the day Judd’s father died: She’s pregnant.

‘Shiva’ is the Jewish ritual of mourning for seven ("shiva") days after the burial of an immediate relative. 

The funeral is the first day of shiva, following that the deceased’s family sit in their home to receive mourners and remember the dead. Mirrors are covered, because vanity has no place in grief. Mourners bring food for the family, because it is a sign of love and respect. 

At the end of shiva, the family of mourners are meant to walk around the block to shake off their grief and remind them what waits for them outside the house of mourning. 

Shiva is often used as a distraction from the loss, and for mourners to openly experience their grief together with friends and family. 

For the Foxman family sitting shiva will be a distraction from their individually catastrophic lives.

Judd Foxman recently found his wife of 10 years in bed with his boss. They had been separated for eight weeks when he heard that his father finally lost a two-year battle with cancer, and his dying wish was that his family find religion in his death when he never had faith in life. Just as Judd leaves to bury his father, his (ex?)wife lobs one more grenade at him – she’s pregnant.

Paul Foxman is the eldest sibling. He blames Judd for a terrible accident in their youth that cost him his baseball career. Paul’s wife, Alice, is desperate to conceive but her fertility frustrations are starting to have adverse affects on her personality. 

Wendy Foxman lives in California with her three children and asshole husband who has his blackberry permanently glued to his ear and treats his kids like strangers. 

Phillip Foxman was his parent’s happy accident – a child born ten years apart from his siblings. He is the coddled baby who never owns up for his numerous mistakes. He has bought his therapist-turned-engaged-to-be-engaged-fiancée along to shiva.

Then there’s Hillary Foxman – matriarch and bestselling author of a many times reprinted parenting manual. Of course, because she is a much celebrated child-guru, all of her children are utterly screwed up and have not been together under the same roof in years.

If the Foxman family can survive seven days together, it will be a bloody miracle.

‘This is Where I Leave You’ was the 2009 New York Times bestseller from contemporary novelist, Jonathan Tropper.

I have a secret reading weapon, and his name is Jonathan Tropper. No, seriously. Whenever I get myself into a reading-rut he saves me. When I can only read one page and retain nothing before my eyes start to strain and the Facebook newsfeed calls to me. When I buy numerous $2.99 Kindle eBooks that are horrendously trashy and the reading equivalent of cotton-candy. When I pick up, read the blurb, put down, pick up and read the first page of every book in my TBR pile . . . Jonathan Tropper saves me. 

Tropper is my fail-safe. He has written six books in his illustrious career, and so far three of them have saved me from reading-ruts, and I've got the other three tucked away for safekeeping. In 2007 it was ‘The Book of Joe’. The reading-rut of 09’ was saved by ‘How To Talk To A Widower’. I don’t know what it is about the guy, but I pick up one of his books and I’m instantly invested. I like to think of Tropper as the anti-Nicholas Sparks. If Sparks is puppies and unicorns and book-to-film adaptations tailor-made for Miley Cyrus then Tropper is the opposite of that – he writes witty, warts and all, hit-rock-bottom and laugh-out-loud damaged characters that I love/pity/fear because I find a little too much of myself in them. And he’s funny. My God! Belly-aching laughs amid truly awful circumstances – reading a Jonathan Tropper book is like trying to suppress a giggle at a funeral, which I guess is an especially apt description for this book. 

Y’know how most plots are structured so that the protagonist hits rock bottom somewhere in the middle, so that the second half of the book can be them clawing their way back to the top (or at least reach a happy middling?) Well, for protagonist Judd Foxman it’s more about starting out at rock bottom, and then finding new and delicious ways to claw even deeper underground. When the book opens, Judd is informed of his father’s passing. It’s not that much of a surprise, since the man was slowly dying from cancer these past two years. But Judd only lost his wife eight weeks ago, after walking in on her and his alpha-boss, Wade, going at it (and then discovering they’d been going at it for a year). Now his mum informs him that his dad’s dying wish was for all the Foxman children to come together and sit shiva, and be together for seven consecutive days to say goodbye to him.

So, Judd has to face his family in the midst of his pitying new loneliness. But then his wife, Jen, turns up to also inform him that she’s pregnant. 

Stuck in his childhood home with his dysfunctional family, all of whom have their own crises their playing out amongst greeting mourners, is not a great way to recover from heartbreak and the looming years of middle-aged loneliness ahead of you. But there’s also the fact that nearly all the Foxman children are harbouring secret, and not so secret, resentments against one another that are bound to come bubbling to the surface.

It’s no wonder that Judd starts having nightmares about his dead father in which he sports a prosthetic leg and has sex with his recently reconnected childhood crush, Penny Moore: 

It’s like Stephen King is writing my dreams in to Penthouse Forum. 

While Judd starts coming to terms with his father’s death, he’s also suffocating from the hatred he feels towards his cheating wife (who he still loves) and the life they built together, now crumbled. He thinks back over infinitesimal details of their romance, as well as the larger obstacles they weren’t able to overcome; 

That’s the problem with college kids. I blame Hollywood for skewing their perspective. Life is just a big romantic comedy to them, and if you meet cute, happily-ever-after is a foregone conclusion. So there we were, the pretty blond girl milking her very slight congenital limp in order to seem damaged and more interesting, and the nervous boy with the ridiculous hair trying so hard to be clever, the two of us hypnotized by the syncopated rhythms of our furiously beating hearts and throbbing loins. That stupid, desperate, horny kid I was, standing obliviously on the fault line of his embryonic love, when really, what he should have been doing was running for his life.

Judd, like all of Tropper’s characters, is not an entirely likeable man. Just because he’s the lovelorn underdog in this saga, will not make readers predisposed to like him. He has flaws, and becomes selfish in his grief, thinking that a wounded heart makes him less culpable when dealing with other people’s feelings. But the very fact that he’s a prickly, depressed, sucker-in-love is a reason in itself to root for him, even as you shake your head and admonish him. 

Case in point: Judd reconnecting with his high school crush (and best friend), Penny Moore. Penny is stuck in her home town, and when she starts hanging out with Judd again she makes reference to being on medication, having a sick mother and just generally expecting people to treat her badly because it's happened so often in the past. But does Judd care to get to the root of Penny's problems, or even ask her to extrapolate on them? No. Because he's so caught up in his own misery, and can't really see Penny beyond being a healing-balm for him in his time of need. That's some sucky behaviour, right there. But I defy anyone not to recognize a bit of themselves in Judd's miserable selfishness - when our own worlds are imploding, empathy and compassion for others pretty much goes out the window.

Actually, all of the Foxman children are hard to stomach at times. Tropper has most definitely cut them all from the same cloth – and they vary in their likability and levels of selfish, prickliness and ability to trample hearts left and right. But they’re a fun bunch to read about because they’re so absurdly messy in their lives. But what it comes down to is this; they’re family. Love them, hate them, resent the hell out of them . . . these people come together for seven days and are reminded that they were integral to one another’s lives at one point or another. Slowly they drift back together, they reconnect and reform in the wake of tragedy and the book is a very lovely and different sort of romance for essentially being more about the love between families than the romantic love that can so easily shatter. 

I’m kind of thrilled to discover that Tropper has adapted ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ into a film – and the likes of Jason Bateman, Zac Efron and Goldie Hawn have already signed up for the still up-in-the-air project. I think this could be an absurdly brilliant movie, since it has been left in Tropper’s screenwriting hands (he’s had recent success with the crazy TV show ‘Banshee’ – which is nothing like any book he has ever written but still amazing!)

I want to see this movie made because ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ is the road less travelled when it comes to grief and romance. It’s warts-and-all, witty, sad and frustrating for the imperfections depicted in both life and characters. You can keep your Nicholas Sparks honey-hued tales of love and redemption and good-guys getting the girl in the end and books that can be summarized perfectly into one-word movie taglines and posters of guys (Duhamel, Gosling, Tatum) doing that head-cradle-kiss thing. You can keep all that – because those stories don’t pull me out of reading-ruts. Only Tropper can do that.

... and, for the record, if I was going to get a head-cradle-kiss I'd much prefer Jason Bateman over Channing Tatum.


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