Book Review - This Is Where I Leave You sits through a suburban family farce
Author Jonathan Tropper excels at putting estranged family members into awkwardly tight quarters
Most bibliophiles will tell you that the book is always better than the movie. For the most part, they’re right. Robert Redford’s charming blue eyes could never compete with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless prose in The Great Gatsby. Nabokov’s linguistic acrobatics will always mesmerize more than any woman chosen to portray Lolita. But what about books that aren’t so classic? The narrative voice in Palahniuk’s Fight Club is hardly as interesting as Brad Pitt’s pectoral muscles or Edward Norton’s malnourished gaze. And does anyone actually think The Godfather was better the way Mario Puzo wrote it?
Jonathan Tropper’s new book, This Is Where I Leave You, won’t be confused for canonical lit, but it will probably make a decent movie. Warner Brothers thinks so — the company contracted Tropper to write the screenplay adaptation before This Is Where I Leave You ever hit a bookshelf.
This Is Where I Leave You is narrated by Judd Foxman, an out-of-shape thirtysomething whose life is quickly unraveling around him. His wife, Jen, has left him for another man, he’s lost his job because the guy Jen ditched him for also happens to be his boss, and his father has died. Now, his driving purpose is to fulfill his father’s deathbed request to sit shiva, the Jewish tradition of gathering a family together in the home for a full seven days after the funeral.
The result is a suburban family farce, driven by the tension of putting an estranged set of relatives into awkwardly tight quarters. Hillary Foxman, the ring-leading family matriarch, is, as her son describes her, “a sixty-three-year-old best-selling author with a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology and Pamela Anderson’s breasts, who talks about fucking her late husband like she’s discussing current events.” Phillip, the freewheeling prodigal son who uses words like “doobage” and wears moccasins to the funeral, clashes predictably with his more straightlaced siblings, Wendy and Paul.
The siblings do, however, unanimously agree on disliking the rabbi, nicknamed Boner, and try their best to avoid most of the obligations related to sitting shiva. When Boner tries to discuss the tradition of sitting shiva, they’re more interesting in recalling their father’s atheism and incongruous request. “He was on a lot of drugs,” suggests Wendy. “Did anyone else hear him say it?” Phillip asks.
If Judd were a more articulate narrator, the story might’ve had a satirical tone, but the reader is offered more navel gazing than insight into suburban lives. Nevertheless, Judd’s thoughts are barbed with enough hooks of misanthropic humor to keep the mood light: “Every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options.” His preoccupation with sex is at times both hilarious and exhausting. “It’s like Stephen King is writing my dreams in to Penthouse Forum,” he muses. Whichever way you’d like to take that, it actually is an apt description.
There’s no way to compare This Is Where I Left You to the film adaptation, on account that it doesn’t yet exist. It’s easy to imagine it on a screen, though. Tropper’s greatest strength as a writer may be his ability to construct simple, clean scenes and let them spiral into a comic mess. If Judd’s narration leaves something to be desired on the page, it could translate to above-average insight for Hollywood standards. His self-absorption might even be less obnoxious with the right actor. This Is Where I Left You moves quickly enough that it could fit into a long flight or two, so it’s not a bad choice for summer vacation. One day, it probably won’t be a bad choice for a summer movie, either.