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Deep Book Review: "This Is Where I Leave You" by Jonathan Tropper

1599 words Read time 08:02

This is a 2010 novel by Jonathan Tropper about a family that has to live together in the same house for 7 days following the patriarch’s death. Although it has a somber premise, it’s quite funny and warm in places and moves along at an enjoyable pace. The book was also turned into a film by the same name that stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda, among other fine cast members.

The reason the number of days is 7 is that the family is carrying out the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva”, where the family gathers together with other mourners to talk about the deceased. The word “Shiva” means 7 in Hebrew.

Right away it gave the feel of another well-liked ensemble story, The Big Chill, where a single event draws estranged people together. The storyline is interesting and unpredictable and allows for some curious relationships and situations to develop.

One of the main characters (played by Jane Fonda in the film) is charming and funny in the book and has a lot of funny lines to say. Then there is the serious, safe brother. All characters in the book seem like well-drawn, well-rounded, real-people characters that the reader can relate to.

The family dynamics felt true to life, and you feel that this is a real family with real situations and emotions, not simply a contrived family with unrealistic lives and motives. No one is perfect, and everyone’s shortcomings are painfully obvious and scrutinized. Don’t be surprised if you see yourself in some of the characters, or know family members who fit the mold.

Just when you think the book is wrapping up, it goes on. And then it goes on a little more. And then a little more. It takes quite a long time wrapping things up, but I’m glad the ending happened this way, because you get the chance to see everything resolve, or not, as some cases may be. This feeling of resolution happens in the film too. It was good of the author to avoid pulling the rug out from under the reader after involving us in the lives of the characters. It would have been easy to just end everything with a question mark. Sometimes that’s okay, and I get stories like that, but it would have been disingenuous and rude with this one.

It’s a very satisfying and believable family novel, with a lot of honesty, heart, and humor. The plot may be just a little over-used, but still interesting to see how this family pulls it off, and it never came off as a copycat to me. The plot and situations aren’t too farfetched. I could see this happening in just about any family today.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind reading more of this family, either in a sequel where we catch up with what they’ve all been doing; or something on TV with a weekly family drama like This Is Us.

It isn’t the kind of family that you grow to dislike intensely, but the members do have quirks and traits that can be a little irritating at times. For example, they are all surprised that the gathering is even taking place, since the father wasn’t even that religious, and it had been a very long time since the family has visited one another. The main character, Judd, who is also the narrator, has to deal with finding his wife sleeping with his own boss and is caught up in divorce.

Judd’s sister Wendy is a mother to three children and is married to a man who puts his career above family. Judd’s older brother is dealing with a failed chance at the big time, and also failing to have a child. The youngest sibling is an outsider who seeks a relationship with an older woman.

It’s the kind of family that most of us can relate to—blemishes, strengths, skeletons, and all.

Other dynamics are added to the family by those that show up to pay their respects, which lend to comedy and insightful exchanges.

The author deftly handles a balance between tragedy and comedy. After all, it is about a death in the family, but the characters and situations of the family members give it a lighter mood.

Some critics have said that no family is this dysfunctional, but couldn’t be further from the truth, as family therapists’ offices are full of families grappling with old wounds, abandonment, disappointments, pain, and unresolved issues.

There are some crude scenes that may come off as disrespectful or extreme, but no two families are alike, and, to be fair, this author is focusing on this one family, not The Waltons. Books like this, and families like this one, are reminiscent of the popular TV family found in All in the Family, where constant bickering, imperfections, and chaos was the norm.

Maybe it’s that older audiences are a bit more conservative, or private, about family affairs. But the book seems to connect with those younger than baby-boomer age—the antics more acceptable. The author gives us a peek into the dysfunction of a family, peeling back the curtain to show us that families aren’t alone in their flaws, and that forgiveness can be given and received under the right circumstances. Even in an era of relaxed mores and anything-goes relationships, people still need and want some semblance of family. The author does a good job of conveying this throughout his story.

The book helps us take a look at our own families: Don’t you have a family member that’s thought of as the black sheep? Don’t you have one that drinks too much? Sleeps around too much? Keeps messing up over and over? If anything, these wild characters show us it’s okay to have a fractured family, and that there’s hope for redemption.

This book could have been a straight drama about all of these issues, but the writer chose to present it in a comedic light, which was the right thing to do. After all, who hasn’t lived through some serious stuff with their families, only to look back and laugh at it later on?

While reading the book, ask yourself, “How would I fare spending 7 days under one roof with my family? What would we talk about? What would transpire? How would it go?”

In film terminology, the book would be rated R for sexual content, language, and some drug use. Basically, it’s a good read for adult audiences. Although it can seem a little sensational at times, it doesn’t swerve into the soap opera lane. It has some really good laughs and some poignant moments too, and you walk away thinking about your own family and how you may come off to one another.

Some of the book’s critics say the family and characters are unrealistic and over-the-top, but it is fiction, after all, not a newspaper article. This family is wild and crazy, and they pull all of the skeletons from the closet. If the characters seem stereotypical, it’s to see how they react in this particular situation, though I can’t speak for the author’s motivations.

The story can come across as a little crude and chauvinistic at times, but there is no rule that says books and films have to be PC. We would become bored very quickly if that were the case.

Relax. It’s just a novel-just a quirky family with weird problems. If you can’t relate to that, then this book probably isn’t for you or your college literature course. In this story, opposites clash, rivalries abound, jealousies ensue, mistakes happen, and the outrageous is addressed. When you finish the last page, you just may be finding yourself appreciating that your own family isn’t as messed up as this one.

There are over 2400 reviews for this book at Amazon, so this story has found its niche audience, and Tropper has been on the New York Times bestselling list, has authored several books, is a college writing instructor, and produced HBO’s Banshee.

Some semi-negative comparisons have been made between Tropper and Nick Hornby because they write from a hyper-male perspective, but is that supposed to be a taboo? Do we want authors and books to always sound the same? Neutral? Asexual?

Just a few questions remain: Did the dearly departed old man request a sitting of Shiva to help his family come together and heal? Did he do it as a practical joke? Did he request it out of spite? Or a combination of all?

The dialogue in this book is natural and engaging, very witty and funny. By the time you get to the end, you feel a catharsis of some kind, as if dealing with this family can help you deal with yours.

If you like steamy, bodacious novels like the ones made famous by author Harold Robbins, this book is right up your alley. Tidy endings are optional, and memorable characters are everywhere.

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