Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review: This is Where I Leave You

Judd Foxman has hit a rough spot in life.  He walked in on his wife of more than a decade, Jen, having sex with his boss.  In his marital bed. On her birthday.

Then he gets word that his father has died.  His father's dying wish is that his family sit shiva for him. Together. In one house.  All of them.

If that doesn't spell "disaster" for you the reader, just wait to see what comes next in This is Where I Leave You.

Jonathan Tropper's writing is spot-on, chatty without being verbose, descriptive to the point of voyeurism, but in a way only a family can handle.  But not any family: the Foxmans.

Let me introduce them:

  • Hillary, a.k.a. Mom, a shrink who wrote a seminal book on child-rearing, using real-life experiences of her children written with a frank honesty that to this day makes every one of her offspring wince, and whose breast enhancements seem to want to jump out of her inappropriately low-cut blouses;
  • Paul, the eldest son who helped his father in the family business, whose ovulating wife happens to be Judd's former girlfriend and has been attempting to become pregnant for two years;
  • Wendy, the only daughter, married to the always-busy Barry, the hedgefund manager, and lives in California with her three small children;
  • Judd, the former radio producer now living in the basement of a Chinese couple with frequent restroom use, whose soon-to-be ex-wife just handed him some explosive news minutes before he departs for his father's funeral; and
  • Phillip, the "surprise" child, youngest by nearly a decade, who hasn't yet figured out what he wants to do with his life — but for now it involves a life coach nearly twice his age and the Ferrari she gave him.
His father, Mort, though deceased, is far from absent from the preceedings.  Readers are introduced to Mort through the reminiscing of his family.  He certainly is not romanticized by his children, whom he adored as babies but didn't know how to relate to as they grew into individuals with wills of their own. However, he is loved.

The history of those whose lives intertwined with the Foxmans are woven into the story.  There's Horry, the boy-next-door, Wendy's former soulmate who lives with his mother and works at the Foxman's sporting goods store.  There's Penny, who might be able to comfort Judd the way she used to in college, whose "honesty has always been like nudity in an action movie: gratuitous, but no less welcome."  There's Alice, who is doubly present not only as Paul's wife but also as Judd's ex-girlfriend. There's Linda, Horry's mother, who remained close to the Foxmans and helped Hillary and Mort through this trying time.  There are the Sad Mommies, Uncle Stu, Millie Rosen and her daughter Rochelle and many, many more.

The family has been raised with "no secrets," so everyone knows everyone's business, down to the sound of lovemaking that emanates through the mourner-stuffed living room, thanks to a forgotten baby monitor.

Judd is the perfect narrator, frank and thorough in his descriptions. Phillip is the "Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasional rumored to be dead."  Wendy "can be funny, almost charming in her pointed tactlessness, but if there's a line between crass and cruel, she's never noticed it."  Seeing Jen makes Judd
"instantly chagrined, not because she's obviously found out that I'm living in a crappy rented basement, but because ever since I moved out, seeing her makes me feel like I've been caught in a private, embarrassing moment — watching porn with my hand in my pants, singing along with Air Supply while picking my nose at a red light."
His three-year-old nephew Cole speaks with "high-pitched sincerity" and "immigrant English."  Judd's marriage ended "the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake."  And his description of seeing the couple on his bed he would give to "Jen — my Jen" when he got home — only he was home, and "my Jen didn't exist anymore, has dispersed into the mist right before my eyes."

Judd paints with vivid colors.  He shines a light on the foibles of family, where every word spoken is weighed down by every word and gesture that came before it.  Needless to say, the five remaining Foxmans finish the shiva after enduring seven days on low chairs with injuries, sex, fisticuffs, blood, "Sweet Home Alabama" (more than once), marijuana, resolutions and opened wounds.

It is a well-written, thoroughly satisfying book about family that makes everyone feel better.  I recommend it thoroughly: buy it, read it, weep and laugh.

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