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A Review of "This Is Where I Leave You"

I read This Is Where I Leave You in February, but I didn't write about it back then because I guess I was too busy whining about Heckler or something.  Anyway, I had a few thoughts to share.

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:  This may be one of my new favorite novels.  Jonathan Tropper has a terrific ear for dialogue and a natural, smooth approach to describing action and internal conflict.  Although it's little more than just a week in the life of the Foxmans, a dysfunctional family, it touches on many interesting issues and tangents that amount to something greater than its parts.  I would enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone - you almost certainly will see something of your own family, although (hopefully) not to the extent portrayed. My Rating: 5 / 5

The longer bit for people who like literary discussion:

I wanted to make sure that I gushed about this book in my shorter blurb above, because the things I want to talk about are going to sound like I'm being a nitpicky bastard.

First, I really do want to reiterate how much I enjoyed reading this book.  I can almost say that it's the book that got me to start reading again - after several failed attempts to get back into contemporary fiction, I was thinking I might just be some asshole who doesn't read.

But then I found This Is Where I Leave You, and it has really inspired me to try again.  I've read half a dozen books in the few months since this one because I believe once again that there is good writing out there.

Okay, so, does it sound like I like this book yet?  Good, because now I'ma start whining.  (Much apologies to Mr. Tropper.)

The first thing I want to talk about is the portrayal of women.  It's a bit less than stellar.  This is not to say that Tropper can't write women - I'd say it's definitely the opposite; he's actually done a terrific job.  It's just that TIWILY falls into that trap where you've got four or five funny guy characters who are off doing interesting things and having side adventures, and then occasionally the story cuts back to a small handful of women who don't really do a whole lot.

I'm left to wonder why.  I think it's mainly to emphasize just how much of an asshole Judd Foxman is.

Judd, the story's narrator, begins as a much more sympathetic, downtrodden kind of guy.  The story opens with him finding out that his father has died.  He learns this while he's living in a separate apartment from his wife - whom he had discovered was cheating on him with his boss.  Then, on top of all that, he finds out that is wife is pregnant.  Damn.

It's a terrible sucker punch of an opening.  From the very first chapter, you just feel a sick weight in your stomach.  Poor Judd.  You hope he'll find some kind of spirit in his life when he goes to visit his family.  You hope that maybe by reconnecting with his family at his dad's funeral, he'll discover inner strength and triumph over his adversity.

But then Tropper pulls an unexpected move.  While you're still reeling, he starts dropping hints that maybe Judd isn't quite the sad sack he seems to be.  First you find out that his wife had a miscarriage, and he hasn't really been supportive of her since then.  Then you find out that she's pregnant with his child, and he's not eager to get involved with his wife again to support the kid.  Then you learn that Judd was indirectly responsible for his brother getting into a sports career-ending injury, and then you learn that Judd never really visited his brother in the hospital, and then, and then, and then....

By the end of the story, Judd is revealed to be a self-centered dickhead who becomes more of a sexual deviant than his wife ever could have been.  Judd ends up sleeping with both an old fling from high school and his sister-in-law while he's visiting home.  And in neither of these cases does he seem especially repentant.  (Okay, to be fair, he does regret the sex with his sister-in-law, but he compartmentalizes it as if it was a case of bad food poisoning rather than, say, a family-destroying act.)

So, considering that the core conflict inside of Judd's being is that he feels betrayed by his wife, is the representation of women meant to be an indicator that he just doesn't really respect any women?  Maybe the fact that he marginalizes his wife is just another symptom of Judd's overall character flaws.

I don't want to misrepresent the novel as being misogynistic or anything like that.  All of the women are interesting and realistically portrayed.  It's just that none of them ever get the chance to be as funny as the men.  Nowhere is this more clear than with Judd's sister, Wendy, who is also engaging in an extramarital affair and who serves as a foil to Judd in most respects.  Wendy has some of the best dialogue and seems like a rich mine for comedic material and introspection - but outside of maybe a half dozen scenes, she's barely in the book, and doesn't really ever have much of a narrative interaction with Judd.

(Incidentally, Wendy will be portrayed by Tina Fey in the upcoming adaptation of the book.  I'm eager to see what they do with her character, because I see Fey doing a fantastic job.)

The other thing I wanted to mention was the ending of the story.  It's really the only part that feels wrong.  I kinda hate it.

TIWILY ends with one of those non-ending endings, where the protagonist doesn't actually resolve anything and just wanders off into the sunset.  He has liquidated all of he and his wife's bank accounts into cash.  He sits in his car with the cash in the seat next to him, and he speculates on what he'll do.  Then he decides to drive off to Maine and daydreams about starting a new life somewhere.  "Who knows what will happen tomorrow," he muses.  I think it's intended to be a poignant contemplation on the unpredictability of life and the precariousness of being.  But it just comes off as childish.

What will happen tomorrow is either a) you'll learn to be an adult who handles things in your life and you go back to your pregnant, single wife and take care of your damn baby, or b) you skip town with your bag of cash like an asshole and spend your wife's and your baby's money on non-baby-related things.  There's not really much of a choice, dude.

In the final scene(s), Judd is given ample opportunity to try to salvage his relationships.  He seems to be right on the verge of doing so.  In fact, in one of the sweetest scenes in the book, he goes back to his wife and cuddles her, runs her a bath, and falls asleep feeling the pride of a soon-to-be father.

Then he follows that up with, "Gee, guess I'll go for a drive up to Maine for no good goddamn reason."

I just hate it.  It's incredibly unsatisfying and feels like a major step back from whatever character growth he was about to have.

Anyway, considering that these are my only major complaints, I would say that the book still holds up.  Go check it out.  Bonus hipster points if you do it now so you can say you read it before they made it into a movie.