Author: Jonathan Tropper

2009, Dutton

Filed under Literary

Zany family novels are certainly nothing new, but they can be fun, and perhaps a little comforting–like homemade mac and cheese (made with a roux and covered in crispy breadcrumbs). One part The Royal Tennenbaums and one bigger part The Big Chill, This Is Where I Leave You is a fun read, and well-written, though ultimately struggles to define itself as a unique entry in a traditionally formulaic genre.

The plot is a basic one. Judd Foxman’s life is gone down the tubes. His wife is divorcing him for his boss, leaving him without the things he has for so long defined himself by. When his father dies, his whole family returns home to sit shiva in order to honor his final wishes. Enter the usual cast of characters, the crazy immature brother, the martyring brother who stayed at home, the rich, dismissive in-law, the still attractive high school flame, the wacky psychologist mother, et cetera.

They reconnect and compare their life disappointments, and are hence forced with introspective reflection when they see how those they once loved (and no longer know well enough for the word “love” to remain truly relevant to their relationship) have turned out. It’s still fun and at times quite funny, and it grasped my attention–I read the book in a only a few sittings.

The biggest drawbag to the book is that the plotting is quite pedantic and doesn’t really go anywhere besides follow the obvious plot patterns. I knew halfway through pretty much exactly how it would end, and even then I felt let down by the action when I finished the final page. Its a shame too, because this is a funny book, and the narration was a pleasure to read.

My language rating above may be a bit deceiving, because Tropper is actually a very strong writer.  There were many passages and lines I came across in this book that gave me pause, at which point I would admire, smile, underline, and move on.  He turns quite a few top-notch phrases, has a keen eye for metaphor, and wears his wit on his sleeve. Unfortunately he drops the ball with dialogue. Many of the conversations feel stilted and rehearsed, sharing with Kevin Smith’s angst-ridden teen characters that brooding note of a conversation worked over time and again in someone’s head until it reaches a specific, too acute pitch.

She shrugs, “I don’t have [a story]. No great traumatic event to blame my small life on. No catastrophes, no divorce. Plenty of bad men, but plenty of good ones too, that simply didn’t want me in the end. I tried to make something of myself and failed. That happens every day too.”

To be fair, here are just a few of the lines that I enjoyed:

But now the paint is cracked and flaking off the window frames, there’s an ugly brown water stain just below the roofline, the bluestones on the front walk rattle like loose teeth, and the rose trellises lean away from the house like they’re trying to escape.

Sometimes he’s descriptive like that, and at others he is cleverly non-descriptive:

Her last boyfriend, Everett–that was really his name, and he looked exactly how you’re picturing him, only not as tall…

All told, I quite enjoyed Topper’s novel. Don’t pick it up expecting something new, but this book will definitely make a relaxing couch read over the holidays, perhaps to help you tune out your own zany family.

Similar works: Watch The Big Chill. Read Liars and Saints, by Maille Meloy.