I haven’t laughed out loud like this from a book in a long time – once even laughing until I was crying. Ordinarily this would be a good thing, except I read this on a packed plane from Tucson to Chicago a couple of weeks ago. My husband was in the middle seat, with nowhere to shrink from his embarrassment as I banged on the seat in paroxysms of hysteria, shoving the book at him and saying over and over, “Oh, read this page, just one more, you have to read this!”…
Here’s the bizarre thing about this book: it has a very similar plot to that of The Believers by Zoe Heller, which I absolutely hated. Tropper, unlike Heller, understands how to get you to love a very, very dysfunctional family.
This Is Where I Leave You begins with the death of the father, Mort Foxman, from metastatic stomach cancer. Their mother Hillary informs them that their atheist father’s last wish was that they “sit shiva” for him. This is a Jewish custom requiring that the family spend seven (“shiva”) days together in mourning before they get back to their regular lives. (The purpose is not only to honor the dead, but to cut off the mourning process, so that families do not spend too much time focusing on death instead of celebrating life.)
So the Foxman children, Judd (34) – the narrator, his older sister Wendy, older brother Paul, and younger brother Philip gather at their mom’s house for the shiva. Paul’s wife and Wendy’s husband and kids also come, along with Philip’s latest girlfriend. Judd’s wife, Jen, is not there because they have separated; he moved out of their house two months before after finding Jen in bed with his boss.
The book takes you through the seven day ritual. Over the seven days, the family, long scattered by school and marriage and jobs, gets to know each other all over again. While this may not seem like a setting for hilarity, it very often is.
There are so many funny things about this book, and so many comical passages that I ran out of stickies twice just marking the ones I wanted to quote. (So I guess I won’t be using all of the quotes!) But the problem is, if I conveyed all the funny bits to you, I would spoil it for you. I want to give you a flavor for the writing, however, so I’ll steer clear of the humor (not easy to do) and go for the bittersweet. In this passage, Judd is imagining having a conversation with his boss. He begins by talking about how he and Jen were wildly in love… at first. Then he continues:
“I want to tell him how he and the love of his life will slowly fall into a routine, how the sex, while still perfectly fine, will become commonplace enough that it won’t be unheard of to postpone it in favor of a television show, or a late-night snack. … how he’ll feel himself growing self-conscious telling funny stories to their friends in front of her, because she’s heard all his funny stories before; how she won’t laugh at his jokes the way other people do; how she’ll start to spend more and more time on the phone with her girlfriends at night. How they will get into raging fights over the most trivial issues: the failure to replace a roll of toilet paper, a cereal bowl caked with oatmeal left to harden in the sink, proper management of the checkbook. How an unspoken point system will come into play, with each side keeping score according to their own complicated set of rules. I want to materialize before that smug little shit like the Ghost of Christmas Past and scare the matrimonial impulse right out of him.”
Evaluation: I enjoyed this book immensely. And while I laughed quite often, it is a book about leaving – whether through death or separation or leaving the past behind or even physically leaving – getting in the car and just driving. So it has some sad moments as well. But really, not too many; it’s more like a Seinfeld episode, in which pathos is just an excuse for another comedy routine. Highly recommended!
Published by Orion, 2009
Note: This book was produced as a movie in 2014, starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda, among others.