Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina that while all happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Using this rule of thumb it can be safely said that the Foxman family of This Is Where I Leave You is unique. Their story opens with Judd--narrator and third of the family's four adult children--receiving news of his father's death from his sister Wendy.
"Dad's dead," Wendy says offhandedly, 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."
I have to smile, even as I chafe, as always, at our family's patented inability to express emotion during watershed events.
Judd learns from Wendy that their father's last wish was to have the family sit shiva. Not only does Judd not want to sit shiva, which means an entire week of family togetherness, but their father had been an atheist, which makes his last wish seem particularly capricious.
And, oh yes, Judd is still reeling from having come upon his wife in flagrante delicto, in his own bedroom, with his boss, who is a foul-mouthed vulgarian, a shock jock who hosts a program called Man Up with Wade Boulanger. Having come home early to surprise his wife, Jen, on her birthday, Judd happens to have a chocolate-strawberry cheesecake topped with thirty-three burning candles in his hands; this he attempts to shove as far up his boss's bare ass as possible, thereby igniting the performance enhancing cream slathered all over...um, yeah.
So Judd's feeling a little delicate these days. Wade's moved into Judd's own house with Jen, Judd's jobless, living on take-out in a damp basement rental, and his family is not known for observing boundaries.
How many different ways--most of them far worse--a book could go from a beginning like this. It might be a story of reconciliation and redemption, full of hugs and tears and maybe a baby at the end. Or perhaps an unending litany of snarky one-liners and familial back-biting. This Is Where I Leave You does have some of these elements--snarky reconciliation, let's say, maybe a little redemption through back-biting--but it's so much more. Tropper's writing is crystal clear and gorgeous; he's a master of the funny but thoughtful one-liner, the sort that makes the reader do a double take. "It's like Stephen King is writing my dreams in to Penthouse Forum," Judd concludes after describing a particularly vivid variation on a recurring erotic dream in which he is a partial amputee.
The characters could be caricatures or stereotypes, and they often teeter just on the verge of becoming so. But the mostly unflinching eye Judd turns on his family (and on himself), yanks them back from the edge of caricature whenever they're about to fall over.
This Is Where I Leave You is, quite simply, a nearly perfect book. The writing is beautiful, Judd's voice is fresh and funny, and if he does learn something along the way, don't worry--you will never mistake this story for a Lifetime Movie Network movie.