Thursday, December 23

This is Where I Leave You - Jonathan Tropper

Judd Foxman learned of his father’s death from his sister Wendy, who delivered the news casually; it was almost appropriate, given Mort’s repression of emotion, a trait held by the family as a whole. After eighteen months treating metastatic cancer, his death was less surprising than Mort’s instruction, despite his long-held atheism, that the family sit shiva for him. Wendy brings her financial big shot husband, Barry, and her three small and boisterous children; older brother Paul brings his wife, Alice, who desperately wants o become pregnant; and wild child baby brother Phillip, after some tension about whether or not he’d make it all, meets his life coach/therapist/fiancée Tracy at the family home after the service. Judd goes alone – he and his wife separated after he found her, on her birthday, in bed with his boss. And, as Judd finalises his packing for the drive to the family home, Jen breaks the news that she’s pregnant to Wade – news especially distressing because their baby died three weeks before the due date.
Like the recently-reviewed Tropper novel How to Talk to a Widower, This is Where I Leave You deals with grief, loss and renewal. In this case, however, there's a wider cast and a broader palette - it's also a masterful study of family dynamics, interpersonal tensions, change, the presence of the past, and love and relationships of all kinds.
As Judd deals with his wife in the present he revisits the evolution of their relationship, from their first meeting on campus to his discovery of her in flagrante on her birthday, and the fallout. The shiva requirement that the family sit together every day for a week forces them to spend more time together than they have since their teens, bringing old allegiances, tensions, guilt and hostility up from the depths.
Though markedly different from my own family, so many of the Foxman’s interactions and tensions resonated with me, a fact I suspect lies less with our similarities than with Tropper’s skill. Seen through the filter of Judd's gaze, we view a family that, despite matriarch and celebrity therapist Hillary's (who Mort so often responded "Jesus, Hill," to that Judd thought that was Jesus' full name) best efforts to have total honesty and openness, is full of secrets, chaotic, flawed and real.
The product of an over-sharing mother, many of the scenes featuring Hill struck a chord with me. But then t
here are so many wonderful lines and vignettes that I imagine readers from wholly different backgrounds would find things with which to relate, too - “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”
I've become more aware, since the weddings of my siblings, of the massive differences there are in family cultures, something I was already aware of thanks to the very different dynamics of my maternal and paternal grandparents, but which I see differently encountering them as an adult. So I was struck by the apposite response of
Judd and his family to an attempt at interveneing in a fraternal fight:
"We all stare at Tracy as if she just started jabbering in ancient tongues. We've always been a family of fighters and spectators. Intervening with reason and consideration demonstrates a dangerous cultural ignorance."
And of the long-winded passage sung by a cantor, his “slow, operatic tenor makes you want to prostrate yourself on the spot and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” I read Tropper's second novel, The Book of Joe, not long after it was published, before beginning this blog. Like This is Where I Leave You it was funny, observant, raw, real, and poignant, though less accomplished. I'd like to revisit it, but I also think that, having read two of his novels in the space of a couple of weeks, I should probably take a break for the time being. - Alex

No comments: