This Is Where I Leave You
by Jonathan Tropper
Published by Plume
3 Out of 5 Stars
Judd Foxman had a content but not always perfect marriage to the woman of his dreams. And then, I guess because Life just enjoys being an asshole, Life knocks Judd down. Judd and his wife lose their first baby, which causes Judd to lose his wife to his boss, which causes Judd to lose his job. And, because Life in this book likes to remorselessly kick people while they're down, Judd loses his father to cancer. And just when you think things can't get any worse, Judd finds out that his atheist father's last request is for his emotionally stunted family to sit shiva, seven days for a family full of anger and resentment and unresolved issues to come together and mourn. Oh, and Judd's soon to be ex-wife is pregnant. Judd is clearly Life's bitch.
To say that the Foxman family is dysfunctional is an understatement. They're nuckin' futs, folks. There's the oversexed, always inappropriate mother. The middle-aged failed-college-athlete brother. The perpetual boy-child younger brother. The bitter and sarcastic child-factory of a sister. The anxious and emotional sister-in-law desperate for her own child. The brother-in-law who is always glued to his cell phone while spitting out words like "mergers" and "net profit." And then there's lonely, depressed Judd.
The whole dysfunctional family thing is a tricky one for me. When done well, I can't get enough. For example, I love Arrested Development, a show that got the concept just right. But This is Where I Leave You, while admittedly hilarious in spots, is just trying too hard for the laughs in others. These laughs are even harder to come by when one takes into account the angry and bitter tone that runs throughout. It seems to want to be a comedy and a thought-provoking look at mortality and family, but never hits the right balance.
I think what's lacking in the novel is Arrested Development's key to success: Michael Bluth. In a family this messed up and unlikable, you need a relatable character--one you can root for, one that you like, one whose normalcy plays straight man to the overabundance of quirky found in the other characters. I need such a lynchpin character to connect me to the others, because normally these are people I would actively avoid in real life. And Judd Foxman is not such a character. When I say he's Life's bitch, I mean it. Life happens to Judd; he seldom acts to change it or fight against it. He mopes, he whines, he thinks about sex. It's tedious as he's an underdog that deserves to be an underdog. Judd Foxman, you, sir, are no Michael Bluth.
So why the 3 star? There were parts I liked, moments of real, honest humor and the scenes where Judd reflects on the father he remembered and the father he lost to the unavoidable act of growing up have a real poignancy. I wish more time had been spent pursuing this aspect of the novel and less in mourning the loss of a marriage.