There’s something a little “Six Feet Under” about the premise of this book: a son whose life is in disarray returns home after the death of his father, only to have to deal with the rest of his dysfunctional family that wants nothing to do with one another. I thought I could get behind something like this, and while the writing is solid and some real, complicated emotions are examined, This is Where I Leave You left me a bit irritated.
I think I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the reality. It felt a little like an ensemble cast movie that you happen upon while channel surfing late at night, and it catches your attention because you recognise the actors, though can’t quite place them. I guess that shows that I didn’t really connect with this story in any meaningful way, but I still enjoyed it as an easy read.
Doug Parker’s wife, Hailey, died a year ago. He is still lost in his grief but has begun to try to make a start in redefining his life. Only 29, he is an object of curiosity to the women in his town. Doug has a difficult relationship with his teenage stepson, who has now returned to live with his birth father. These two individuals both lost in their separate grief was really the most poignant element of the story.
The story really kicks off when Doug’s twin sister, who is pregnant and has just left her husband, moves in with Doug to direct his life back to normal. They also have a younger sister, who Doug resents for marrying a friend of his she met at Hailey’s shiva, a father with a brain injury, and a somewhat distant mother who is trying to hold it all together. This disconnected family has to learn to forge new adult relationships and accept all that life has thrown their way.
There were times when I found this book to be very honest and truthful about the grieving process, which I appreciated. Otherwise, it was basically reminiscent of a chick lit novel, with a male lead.
I immediately reserved this book at the library after I read about the cast for the upcoming movie edition. The cast is basically a who’s who of people Pajibans (and America) loves. I was lukewarm towards the book, but I can’t help but feel that a cast with great chemistry could make me love a movie adaptation. It’s a family dramedy, which is normally right up my alley. When the Foxman patriarch dies, his four adult children and an assortment of their friends and lovers gather to sit Shiva, although they were not even remotely religious growing up.
The middle son (Jason Bateman), going through a painful divorce with his soon to be ex-wife (Abigail Spencer), anchors the story, attempting to hold both himself and his family together while reconnecting with his high school flame (Rose Byrne). His younger brother (Adam Driver) is irresponsible, wasteful and free spirited the way youngest siblings often are, and he comes home with his much older, life coach girlfriend (Connie Britton!!) only to fuck things up for his family and his relationship.
One of the most compelling dramatic tensions in the story was the tension between the oldest brother (Corey Stoll) and the middle brother. A traumatic event in their youth dramatically altered the course of the oldest brother’s life, and neither brother has ever addressed the underlying jealousy and resentment that event caused. Watching them work through their past was satisfying.
One Last Thing Before I Go has a premise problem, or really, two premise problems. Maybe even three. The point is, that no matter how impressive Mr. Tropper’s command of the language, or how deftly he characterizes the main players in this family drama, if the reader can’t see his or her way into accepting the novel’s premises (and there is no reason they should, other than willful suspension of disbelief) then the novel can’t help but feel like nothing more than a mildly diverting amble toward a pre-ordained outcome. Tropper can try all he likes to justify his and his character’s choices, and go so far as to introduce some last-minute uncertainty in the form of a wishy-washy ending, but he can’t redeem the story.
Silver is a divorced father still living, if you could call it living, off the royalties for the one-hit wonder he wrote and played drums on years before. He was a bad husband and a bad father, and he knows his wife and daughter are right to want nothing to do with him. (Note: You’ll just have to accept that Silver is a bad dude from Tropper telling you so, as there’s very little evidence presented for that conclusion, as if the author was afraid of alienating readers by making his central character too much of a bad guy.) So Silver is doubly surprised when his daughter arrives at his crummy apartment complex to tell him she’s pregnant, both because she’s 18 and headed for Princeton in the fall, and because she chose to tell him first. Her reason? She didn’t care about disappointing him.
Since this is a contemporary novel, set in New York, the answer to Casey’s problem seems obvious (even if fiction is still a little gun-shy about depicting women choosing abortion.) But when Silver and Casey are waiting at the clinic, he has an attack and wakes up in a hospital bed, where his ex-wife’s new fiance, a doctor, explains that he has a leaky aorta which will kill him if he doesn’t opt for emergency surgery. That’s when Silver, for no particularly justifiable reason other than to set the plot into motion, informs his family and few remaining friends that he’d rather just let his heart give out when it will.
This is, of course, ridiculous, as the other characters never seem to tire of telling Silver. It’s beyond obvious that Silver should have the surgery, and just about as obvious that eventually, the events of the novel will lead to him making that decision. Casey’s decision is far more subject to possibility, but of course Tropper seems so uncomfortable with a full discussion of that issue that he places far more narrative weight on Silver’s ridiculous self-created predicament.
There are some nice set-pieces along the way, most involving the far more intriguing side characters, especially Silver’s father Ruben, a rabbi who decides to drag his son along as he performs Jewish rituals to show his son all life has to offer. And Tropper is talented at probing the male mind, exposing its various insecurities and absurdities and laying bare all of its delusions.
But none of this is enough to overcome Tropper’s inability to make the reader see Silver’s decision as a real choice and not a mechanism. Combined with the author’s lamentable reticence on both Silver’s bad behavior and Casey’s thought process, One Last Thing Before I Go becomes a missed opportunity, a waste of its author’s talent.
Judd Foxman’s father’s death could not have come at a worse time. Fresh off the wound of catching his wife and his boss in flagrante delicto, Judd is now unemployed, headed toward divorce, and worst of all faced with the prospect of an entire week in close contact with his dysfunctional family. That’s because, despite a lifetime of avowed atheism, Mort Foxman has asked his wife and children to follow the Jewish tradition and sit shiva in the family house for a week after his death.
Judd’s mother Hillary is a developmental psychologist and author of a best-selling book on parenting, who never questions her own expertise in light of her screwed-up offspring. Judd’s older brother Paul, a once-promising athlete, is struggling to keep their father’s business afloat while dealing with a wife who’s desperate to get pregnant but can’t seem to make it happen. Judd’s sister Wendy is a fading beauty with three kids and a rich husband who can’t get off his BlackBerry long enough to pay attention to any of them. Finally, there’s Phillip, the baby of the family, a fuckup who can’t hold down a job or resist any temptation.
Assorted other characters will pop up in the course of the novel, many becoming important to the story, but at its heart, This is Where I Leave You is about family dynamics and what can happen to relationships when they last a lifetime and can’t actually be destroyed. Your siblings are still your siblings, whether you talk to them or not.
Tropper’s novel is expansive and lively, and his humor and gift for constructing set-pieces are much appreciated. In many ways he reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Richard Russo, in the way he presents helplessly flawed people who can’t appreciate the wrongs they commit and the damage they cause. And they’re both funny as hell, to boot.
I had two issues with This is Where I Leave You, though neither of them derailed my enjoyment. The first is that the book struck me as possibly misogynistic. There’s a whiff of “women, who can understand them” in the protagonist’s point of view that I don’t think is adequately counter-balanced, even with all the crazy shit done by men. The second is thing is that at times Tropper’s characters seemed to behave and talk too much as though they were characters in a novel. Their dysfunctions too neatly aligned with each other’s to cause conflicts, and they were all just so emotionally immature to lose credibility as adults, even fictional ones. In real life very few people are this quick with a one-liner or a sock to the jaw, and though both those traits pack a narrative punch, it often feels like Tropper has someone start a fight, or jump in someone else’s bed, just as a mechanism to advance the plot, and not as a natural consequence of their actions and choices. But the caveat as always is that real life does not exactly make for the most thrilling fiction.
Overall this was a very enjoyable, very good novel. Good enough that I immediately bought and started reading Tropper’s newest book, One More Thing Before I Go.
One Last Thing Before I Go is the story of Drew Silver, a 44-year-old divorced father with little to recommend him. For reasons strongly hinted at, but never clearly outlined, his wife Denise divorces him and he slowly but surely pulls away from all who love him, including his teenage daughter Casey. Unlike the other divorced-and-fast-approaching-middle-age men he is surrounded by in his drab apartment complex (inappropriately named Versailles), Silver (as he is referred to by all who know him, even his family) used to BE somebody; he once wrote a hit song as the drummer of the band The Bent Daisies. His hit song climbed the charts, giving The Bent Daisies their one hit for which they’d be known later, probably on some sort of One-Hit Wonders type show. These days, Silver gets by on dwindling royalties from his days a musician and the gigs he can get as part of a wedding band.
What at first seems like a pointless story is made all the more interesting when one afternoon, Silver’s 17-year-old Princeton-bound daughter shows up at his place to tell him that she’s pregnant. When asked why, after so much time without seeing each other she felt compelled to tell him, her response cuts him deeply – he’s the one person in her life she doesn’t care about disappointing. He agrees to accompany Casey to an abortion clinic, but before she can even fill out much paperwork, Silver has an episode and wakes up in the hospital. As it turns out, his heart is in terrible shape and without surgery (by his ex-wife’s irritatingly great fiancé) he’ll die. To his family’s utter surprise and frustration, Silver elects to check out without any plans of ever getting the surgery that will save his life, and goes about trying to mend fences with Casey and be a better man before he dies.