Book Review: A dysfunctional family sits shiva

While some people love spending time with relatives, others dread family gatherings. After reading Jonathan Tropper’s funny and moving “This Is Where I Leave You” (Dutton), it’s not hard to understand why Tropper’s narrator, Judd Foxman, belongs to the latter category. The novel’s great opening line sets the tone, showing just how poorly these family members act toward each other: “‘Dad’s dead,’ Wendy [Judd’s sister] says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day.” Of course, Judd knows better than to expect real emotion from his siblings, noting that “there is no occasion calling for sincerity that the Foxman family won’t quickly diminish or pervert through our own genetically engineered brand of irony and evasion.” When Judd, his two brothers and his sister learn that their religiously unobservant father made a deathbed request that they observe shiva, the seven days of mourning that occur when a close relative dies, the siblings reluctantly agree to gather together under their mother’s roof.
His father’s request takes Judd by surprise. The only Jewish observance his parents continued after the four children left home was gathering family members for Rosh Hashanah dinner and services at their childhood synagogue, which Judd describes as “interminable... Cantor Rothman’s slow, operatic tenor makes you want to prostrate yourself on the spot and accept Jesus Christ as your savior.” As for the family getting along, each year “at least one person would theatrically storm out of the house in a huff.”
While time spent with his family is never pleasant, Judd has even more reason not to expose himself to their brand of hurtful commentary: He recently separated from his wife, Jenn, after learning she’d had a long-term affair with his now-former boss, an obnoxious radio shock-jock. With no job and a miserable living situation, he feels lost and hopeless, particularly since although he now hates Jenn for her actions, he’s still in love with her. While other mothers might offer sympathy, Judd’s mother instead lectures him and talks about his personal problems in public, which allows his siblings to add their own, usually mean, comments about his life failures. In fact, Judd blames his psychiatrist mother for many of the family’s failings: “Twenty-five years ago she wrote a book called Cradle And All: A Mother’s Guide To Enlightened Parenting. The book was a national phenomenon and turned my mother into something of a celebrity expert on child rearing. Predictably, my siblings and I were screwed up beyond repair.”
Being with his siblings and mother is hard enough, but trying to mourn his father is even more difficult. Although he revisits some pleasant childhood memories of his father, Judd notes that their relationship changed for the worse when he and his siblings became teenagers: “[My father] didn’t understand our infatuation with television and video games, seemed bewildered by our able-bodied laziness, by our messy rooms and unmade beds, our longer hair and our silk-screened T-shirts. The older we got, the further he retreated into his work, his weekend papers, and his schnapps.” Judd wants to feel something, but is unsure how to successfully mourn a man from whom he felt disconnected.
Judd’s connection to his sibling is no less uneasy. During their week together, arguments break out, snide remarks are followed by insults and family members stalk out of the living room. At one point, Judd jokes about the real reason behind one of the rituals of shiva: “Filling the house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb.” Yet, being forced to engage with each other for such a long period does create connections and Judd learns some important lessons about himself and his family that force him to re-evaluate his past.
Tropper does an excellent job balancing the tone of his novel between the humorous and the serious. There is a wonderful chapter during which the family attends synagogue services on a Shabbat morning. First, the author captures the feeling generated by their reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together: “We read the ancient Hebrew words, with no idea what they might mean, and the congregation responds with more words that they don’t understand either... you would think, in these godless times, that the experience would be empty, but somehow it isn’t.... for reasons I can’t begin to articulate, it feels like something is happening. It has nothing to do with God or souls, just the palpable sense of goodwill and support emanating in waves from the pews around us, and I can’t help but be moved by it.” This passage is followed by a hilarious section during which the three brothers gather in a vacant Hebrew School room and prove just how irresponsible and childish they remain.
“This Is Where I Leave You” is an impressive work. While no reader will want to be a member of the Foxman family, it’s definitely worth spending the seven days of shiva with them. The lives of these mixed up, confused individuals will remain with you after the pages of this book are finished.