Jonathan Tropper’s “This is Where I Leave You” begins with the death of a family patriarch. The occasionally-Jewish father’s last wish was for the family to sit shiva for an entire week in the family home.
Each of the four Foxman siblings – three brothers and a sister – put their own complicated lives on hold to return home with their mother for the torturous week. Judd, the middle brother, whom we follow most closely, has lost his wife and his job. He’s not the only one dealing with relationship issues as it soon becomes clear that all of the children (and even his parents) have their own problems.
The book is both funny and sad, intermingling the sappy moments with irreverent humor and awkward remarks that seem appropriate to a dysfunctional family dynamic. Despite his death in the opening of the story, father Mort is a strong character in as every remembers him and tries to grow up in his absence. I also enjoyed the authentic feel to the family relationships – they were flawed but real. They had each others’ back, especially against outsiders, but things weren’t warm and fuzzy. Even a couple of long-standing issues that were able to come to a resolution were done so hesitantly and out of necessity, in a way that indicated all parties involved felt uneasy about the longevity of the truce.
There were scenes in the book that felt out of place to me, as if in the larger narrative, they served no real purpose. For example, without giving anything away, there’s a scene with Alice and Judd that only results in them both looking like horrible people. It could be argued that it shows eventual character growth. I’m not sure – the editor in me still thinks the story would miss nothing if the scene were removed.
But then the ending of the book (again, no spoilers) seems to undo any of the character growth shown for Judd. The book starts with him losing his father just after losing his wife and the job he loved. He’s had a terrible series of events and it’s almost enough to make you excuse some of his poor behavior. Almost. Then you see hints of redemption. However, the end of the book left me unsatisfied, as if that growth had been undone.
Because of that, I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads but I’d prefer to give it 3.5 stars. Stupid Goodreads not allowing me a half star.
It was a hoot to read this book, set in the current day, full of humor and crass language and sometimes bawdy material, directly after finishing the much more refined and sober (and absolutely lovely) war-time read of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
Why I Read This Book:
There’s a movie coming out later this year and I usually prefer to read the book before seeing the film. However, one thing I’ve finally realized is that if I want to properly compare the two (and maybe I don’t always want to do that for whatever reason), I should read the book closer to the movie release date. In this case, I finished the book on March 21 and the movie isn’t scheduled for release until September 4. The same thing happened with “The Book Thief,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Winter’s Tale,” and numerous other books. This is why I’m currently holding Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down” – the movie appears to have a July release. By the time this hits theaters, I won’t remember the book very well.
Another note about reading books with upcoming movies? I’m not sure if I should read who has been cast for each part while reading the book. I did for this book, hoping it would help me keep the siblings straight. Instead, I found it swayed my thinking of the characters in ways that I never would’ve imagined otherwise. I actually feel like Tina Fey is completely wrong for sister Wendy, for example. I need to stick to casting characters in my head without having it forced on me because the idea is either to enjoy the book and movie as completely separate experiences or to read the book first so it isn’t ruined by the movie. Letting the movie casting color the characters in the book is a failure.
Would I Recommend This Book?
I know I said I would only give it 3.5 stars but I still enjoyed reading it. It wasn’t perfect but it was a quick read and a fun escape. If you need a tidy ending, this may not be your thing. If you can relate to big loud Jewish families and the custom of shiva, you may enjoy it. Or just dysfunctional families, parental manipulation, and sibling in-fighting in general.