I have a pretty strict rule about reading books before their cinematic counterparts. If you’re reading this column I sort of assume you can relate. (Am I right? Tell me I’m right!) I just want to create the characters in my own head and then rail against whatever director chose to cast someone with the wrong shade of hair or lilt to their voice.
Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You (now available in paperback) fell on my desk in an indeterminate way. I mean that literally — I have no clue how it got to my desk. But there it suddenly was and with all the buzz around the movie and its many pros and cons floating around this week, I thought I should read it. Plus, Marc walked past and yelled something about how it was his favorite book of 2013 (published in 2009), and that pretty much pushed me over the edge. I began.
This is Where I Leave You is a fabulously wry tale about dysfunctional relatives. Not moderately dysfunctional — way dysfunctional. Four siblings have gathered to sit shiva after the passing of their father, and given the hilarity that would take place if my relatively normal family were under one roof for seven days, imagine what happens when the Altmans get together. The matriarch is Hillary Altman, a celebrity expert on childrearing, who, of course, raised deeply dysfunctional children: a kiss-ass eldest son and his infertile wife, a recently cuckolded son, a daughter married to an arrogant financier, and a delinquent youngest son engaged to a life coach 15 years his senior.
It’s largely not realistic, this novel. Plenty of the characters serve as just comedic fodder, rather than develop as full-blown human beings. But while the novel as a whole is a long series of things I hope I never find myself thinking or saying about my family (Mom I swear to never say your clothing makes me think of an AARP porn video!), it’s a wildly entertaining, irreverent read, punctuated by profoundly honest moments.
Our narrator is Judd, the recent cuckold. Except that doesn’t really capture the desperation of his situation. His wife was cheating on him for a long time. With his boss. And he caught them. In their bedroom. Then he attacked him and I absolutely refuse to spoil exactly what he does to him.
But in between Judd’s railingss against his sister Wendy’s husband (“Barry doesn’t help, because Barry is technically an asshole”), he’ll muse on life in a sort of painfully resonant way. Reflecting on his and his siblings relationships with their now-deceased father, he says, “He liked us as young children. It was when we grew older that he didn’t know what to make of us. Childhood feels so permanent, like it’s the entire world, and then one day it’s over and you’re shoveling wet dirt onto your father’s coffin, stunned at the impermanence of everything.”
It’s a unique balance between crass and callous remarks and a very gentle delivery of life’s deeper truths. While I haven’t see the movie, this is definitely a story and family worth digging through.