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19th July
2010
written by Steph

Before I had the chance to pick up This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, I had read a good deal of reviews about the book that had stressed how darkly funny the book was. Several readers admitted to laughing out loud while reading this book about a family that comes together to sit shiva when their father (a militant atheist… or so they had believed) passes away. Obviously death and mourning aren’t the typical topics one writes about when aiming to tickle the funny bone, so needless to say, I was intrigued. After all, I would say I probably enjoy inappropriate, mordant humor more than most so if this book is going to appeal to anyone, I figured it would be me. When Judd Foxman’s father dies, it marks the first occasion his entire family has convened and spent time together in a very long time… and for very good reason. As they are sequestered together for a week to remember the late family patriarch, dysfunction is the name of the game and it becomes clear why family time is a commodity best engaged in limited quantities. Suddenly all the old rivalries and obsessions that have lain dormant for so long resurface and demand resolution. Through the brawls, tears, and rekindled romances, the Foxmans ultimately realize that no matter how hard you try to define yourself as something other than how your family has pigeonholed you, returning home always results in some degree of regression. I actually don’t have tons to say about this one, which maybe is all you need to know. I found it easy to slip into from the very first pages, and I did think those early bits did crackle with some good humor. But something about this novel fell short for me, in that I didn’t find it entirely believable. I know from dysfunctional families (essentially my family, as much as I love them, can spend about one week together before we implode and have to retreat to our own corners for a while), so it’s not that I don’t get how crazy family can get, how you feed off of each other, egging each other on, both allies and opponents. It’s just that felt like Tropper was trying too hard to make everyone so crazy that to me it felt like it was done almost as an extreme sport at the expense of fully basing the story in a place of authentic idiosyncratic insanity. I guess to put it another way, I could never fully embed myself in this story. I was always aware that I was reading fiction, and more than that, there were parts of this novel that were telegraphed in this very cinematic way. I think in some instances, having a cinematic scope and feel to a novel is not necessarily a bad thing, it can feel organic and encompassing, but here it felt like things were being scripted so that this novel can be made into a movie. It was kind of like Meet The Fockers as a book in terms of pacing and plotting, if that makes any sense. Those kinds of movies can be fun and even entertaining, and may even have a grain of truth at their core, but ultimately, they don’t give you much to feast on after all is said and done. After finishing This is Where I Leave You, I read that the novel has indeed been optioned for a film, and obviously I wasn’t surprised. It’s a book that reads like a movie. Also, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the dysfunctional family story, while a topic that has a universality and has an understandable appeal to authors, is one that’s REALLY tricky to get right. And I think I’ve already said it in this space at least three times before, but for me, it just doesn’t get any better than Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. If you want to read a book about a family that is coming apart at the seams, and examines it with honesty and integrity, then that’s the book you need to read. It’s not that This Is Where I Leave You is a bad novel per se, it’s just that I’m not sure what is new and fresh about it. I mean, even throwing in religious element into the equation just made me think about Zöe Heller’s The Believers, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed more, because it felt more effortless and less self-conscious. This Is Where I Leave You had some good moments and some riotous zingers, but I did wind up feeling let down by it. It was neither as humorous nor as heartfelt as I had hoped, and I found it didn't really stay with me after I had finished it and put it down. I suppose my recommendation is thusly qualified: if you still watch the show Brothers & Sisters, even though it stopped being decent and not annoying about two seasons ago, then have at it. Otherwise, just read The Corrections so I can finally stop talking about it, ok? Rating: 3.5 out of 5

8 Comments

  1. 07/19/2010

    I think you make a good point about it being cinematic, but I still loved the humor. Also I didn’t think the malicious-crazy of The Believers was any less too-much-craziness than the funny-crazy of This Is Where I Leave You. Well, I have not read The Corrections so I suppose I should so I could engage in the same 3-way comparison of Crazy Family Books! :–)

  2. 07/19/2010

    I was thinking that this one sounded a bit like The Believers as well. I had heard a lot about this book, but something about it just didn’t sound all that interesting to me. Now that I hear that it is more zany than penetrating, I am sure this one is not for me. Sorry to hear this one was not as great as you expected it to be.

  3. 07/19/2010

    This is strange: I’d just gotten home from a late dinner, decided to work on a post draft for a book I read last week — it’s this book, haha. And now I’m stumped as to what to write — I’m tempted to simply link to you. :] That said, I did like it much more than you did. I was laughing at the most inappropriate things. And I found a lot of heart in it, for a book that was consciously funny — that is, it knew it ought to be humorous and off-kilter.

    I’ve read The Believers, and I never made the connection, even with the wonky family members. I suppose I had compartmentalized them already in my head, that even though they had the bare bones of the same material, I felt that Heller and Tropper used those in different ways.

    And now that you’ve pointed it out, I do see what you mean by “cinematic writing.” It’s very summer-y, I guess, very family-dark-comedy. I can only hope Tropper didn’t write it, looking for a movie deal. The thing is, another thing I like about this aside from that self-awareness — the characters don’t get the endings I thought they would. I seriously thought Tropper would cop out and give them all Hollywood endings, since, yes, I came into the novel with [shame on me] low expectations, given its “humor” angle.

  4. personally, i’m about done with the dysfunctional family sagas for a while. my gene pool could use a bit of chlorination so i don’t need to read about any more crazy families. i can’t help wishing that this book would have been a tad worse just so you would write another scathing review like the one you wrote last week. i’m still laughing about it!

  5. 07/19/2010

    @ rhapsody: I forgot that you had read this one! I didn’t think it was bad, it just fell a bit flat for me. Perhaps because I had been told how funny it was, I was really expecting to pee my pants from laughter, and sadly (or maybe luckily!) that did not happen. I chuckled a few times, but I guess overall I felt the book was outlandish rather than funny.
     
    @ zibilee: Maybe if I hadn’t read The Believers earlier this year this book wouldn’t have suffered from the comparison, but I did feel there was a lot of overlap. I guess the thing about this one that might appeal to more readers is that the characters here are largely more sympathetic.
     
    @ Sasha: I do think that Heller & Tropper use the dysfunctional family to examine different things – this is definitely an ensemble novel, whereas I felt The Believers was more about the individual family members in their own rights, but I still felt there were a lot of similarities, even if they were just superficial.
    I think the thing that caused me to recoil from this book to some extent is because it was so self-conscious. It felt like it was trying to be funny, and it felt like it was trying to translate easily into a movie. I agree that Tropper doesn’t necessarily go with the cliché ending, but I felt the ending was a bit too conveniently tidy, though not everything is tied up into a pretty bow. I won’t be surprised, though, to find the ending tweaked when this does go to the big screen!
     
    @ nat: I think I’m pretty glad that not all books can be Beautiful Malice, but it is inevitable that I will encounter other books I loathe so all I can say is: be patient! I’m sure you’d get tired of it if all I did was rag on books!

  6. […] Greg [of The New Dork Review of Books] loves this book, loves this author. Plus: Steph just posted her review, and though I liked this book more than she did, I still suggest y’all go over there, not […]

  7. 07/22/2010

    I just read this and had the same basic reaction. I think we have reached some sort of saturation point with bawdy, inappropriate dysfunctional families–they are to middlebrow literary culture what vampires are to young adult novels.

  8. 07/23/2010

    @ Skip: Thanks for commenting! I hadn’t thought of the vampire/YA parallel, but I reckon you’re right! If you’re going to write a dysfunctional family novel, I think you need to bring something new to the table!

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