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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Talk: *This is Where I Leave You*, by Jonathan Tropper


This Is Where I Leave You: A Novel
Jonathan Tropper
Plume (2010), Trade Paperback (ISBN 0452296366 / 9780452296367)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B002GEDEKQ)
Reason for reading: personal

Opening lines: “‘Dad’s dead,’ Wendy says off handedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. ‘He died two hours ago.’

“‘How’s Mom doing?’

“‘She’s Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner.’”
Book description: 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.
Comments: Do you recall the Great #Franzenfreude Debate of 2010? One of the points brought up in that discussion was that certain fictional subject matter seems to be viewed differently depending on whether it’s written by a man or a woman. In making one of her arguments, Jennifer Weiner mentioned that male authors who cover the territory of “domestic" or "relationship" fiction don't seem expected to choose between commercial and critical success the way female authors are, and one of the examples she cited was Jonathan Tropper.

Tropper’s last novel, This is Where I Leave You, got a pretty good reception from bloggers when it was published and has been on my Kindle for months. When I found a break in my reading schedule recently, I decided its time to be read had come. And Weiner’s not wrong; the domestic upheavals and family dysfunction that Tropper details in his story of a week with the Foxman family do seem to be more typically found in fiction written by women. However, the character viewpoint from which the story is told, and the humor and style with which it’s told, sounded pretty male to me, and I mean that in a very good way.

Men and women tend to react differently to infidelity, and Judd Foxman’s reaction to the discovery that his wife has been carrying on an extended affair with his boss is a man’s reaction; he walks out on her, but not before inflicting bodily harm on the other guy with a lighted birthday cake. The losses of his marriage and his job are soon followed by the loss of his father, who left a surprising last request: he wanted his widow and children - who have been indifferently Jewish for years - to come together in the family home and sit shiva for him. The week of enforced togetherness among the four adult Foxman children and their outspoken celebrity-psychiatrist mother stirs up family business both old and new - after all, conventional wisdom suggests that a psychiatrist’s kids may be especially messed up - and serves to demonstrate that some families get along better when they don’t see each other very often.

There are places where the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, and places where it feels emotionally true; in some places, it’s both. The narration is in Judd’s voice, and I liked and empathized with him; I liked most of the characters, actually, even though some weren’t terribly likable. And I may be stereotyping, but I thought that the role sex plays in the book marks it as fiction produced by a male. It’s not particularly graphic, but it is frequently on characters' minds, shaping their perceptions, and in their conversations; also, the way it’s perceived and talked about is pretty matter-of-fact, which strikes me as more of a male approach to the subject, and one I was surprisingly comfortable with.

My reading last year was heavily skewed to women writers, and since they do seem more prone to writing fiction with the themes and topics that most appeal to me, I was neither surprised nor bothered by that. Having said that, I’m trying to shift the balance a little this year, and finding men whose writing comes from a similar place seems like a good way to start. This is Where I Leave You is the first of Jonathan Tropper’s novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading, but I’m quite certain that it won’t be the last.

Rating: 3.75/5

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