Warning: This is going to be one of those godawful reviews that may tell you nearly as much about the reviewer as about the book.
At the outset of This Is Where I Leave You, narrator Judd Foxman’s life has fallen into a shambles after he discovered his wife was having an affair with his boss, and his father has just succumbed to a long illness. His dad’s last request — somewhat surprising given his avowed atheism — was that the family formally sit shiva. The aftermath of Foxman’s wife’s adultery and his dysfunctional family’s awkward enforced reunion unfold in mostly-naturalistic fashion, intermixed with broadly comic and improbable set-pieces of heightened physical action. (I was amused to learn on goodreads that I’m not the only reviewer to whom it has occurred that this blend feels tailor-made for the quirky indie comedy film genre.)
I was engaged enough to finish the novel, but I found it troubling throughout. Most of the issues that bothered me arose from the first-person narration: if Foxman overuses the adjective “smooth” when describing women’s body parts, is that a deliberate choice on Tropper’s part to demonstrate the paucity of Foxman’s vocabulary, or is it just unimaginative prose? And, more significantly, if Foxman expresses a cringe-worthy viewpoint on aspects of male-female relations — which happens quite a bit, and not just in the form of anatomical analysis — is Tropper consciously illustrating Foxman’s borderline misogyny (which I’m okay with) or is Foxman reflecting Tropper’s own attitudes (in which case, Tropper’s probably an author I should avoid in the future). The latter question might be resolved if the character has some sort of epiphany or if external events somehow clarify the novel’s attitude toward its protagonist, but This Is Where I Leave You remains ambiguous to me on that point (even while wrapping up other plot elements perhaps a little too neatly). Foxman makes a few steps toward greater self-awareness, but he’s a serial backslider. I frequently found myself wishing he’d just grow up a little bit.
But reflecting on the harshness of my attitude toward Foxman, I had my own little epiphany: I’m not very happy with how I conducted myself in relationships, particularly at their termini, when I was closer to Judd Foxman’s character’s age. So it’s easy, and maybe facile, or even inappropriate, for me to fault Judd Foxman’s failure to mature from a perspective of more (chronological, at least) maturity.
Slightly more objectively, Tropper leans on a structural gambit I’m not fond of to build narrative tension: the reader will learn, for instance, about a promising baseball career cut short by an injury* and then wait several chapters for the other shoe to drop, even though all the characters are completely cognizant of the details. This technique can certainly be effective, but I feel like it’s most useful when the character is involved in self-denial or repression, and while one of this novel’s uses sorta qualifies, the rest decidedly don’t. The way it repeatedly crops up in This Is Where I Leave You seems a little haphazard, or even lazy.
*why aren’t more fictional promising baseball careers cut short but just plain not being good enough, anyway?
needs more demons? maybe I brought a few too many of my own to the party.