There's nothing like the death of a parent to open familial wounds anew, particularly if you happen to be in a Jewish family forced to sit shiva together for a week's time. That's precisely what radio producer Judd Foxman, the narrator of Jonathan Tropper's often hilarious and often heartbreaking latest, "This Is Where I Leave You," must do.
Judd isn't exactly in the best place emotionally to spend a week mourning his father's death while sitting on those tiny shiva chairs. He recently walked in on his wife Jen and his boss Wade (a shock jock in the Howard Stern mold) at a most indelicate time -- on Jen's birthday, no less. And the proverbial icing on the cake? Jen is now pregnant.
Out of a wife, out of his house, out of a job and out of his mind with grief, Judd descends on the family home to reunite with his siblings: angry Paul, cynical soccer mom Wendy and black sheep youngest sibling Phillip, along with all of their attendant brood. Tying them all together is the novel's most compelling character, Hillary, the clan's matriarch and bestselling author of the parenting book "Cradle and All: A Mother's Guide to Enlightened Parenting." Hillary is a brazen hybrid of Dr. Ruth, Dr. Drew, Dr. Laura and Dr. Spock, but with huge fake breasts, minuscule skirts, towering heels and the kind of pop psychology-speak that has made all of those one-named doctors iconic, for better or worse. That none of her parenting tricks worked on her own children is the subject of high humor and adds a touch of real sadness.
"At some point you lose sight of your actual parents," Judd says early on. "[Y]ou just see a basketful of history and unresolved issues." To Judd, his father was a taciturn man who "mowed his own lawn, washed his own car and painted his own house," but beyond that the adult Judd initially can't quite conjure him. Likewise, Judd has turned into a person who has "the double chin of a stranger in photographs," and who now must figure out how to reform a life he thought would be filled with the kind of suburban promise that includes a two-story house, a golden dog and constant molten-hot marital bed sex.
The novel unfolds in episodic fashion over the seven days of shiva, capturing the odd assortment of neighbors, distant relatives and friends of the family who come to the home with platters of lox to revel in the life of the late Mr. Foxman. And, it turns out, to set up their daughters with the newly separated Judd, resulting in a series of exceptionally awful (in a good way) scenes of Judd hoping to shake the disease of well-meaning mothers, until he finally resorts to admitting to one that he has begun to find great comfort in Internet porn.
But where the comedic and dramatic meat of the novel lives is in the complicated relationships Judd has with his siblings. Though they are archetypal in their general makeup, Tropper does a fine job of slowly parsing out the history that brought them to this point in their lives, where it's easier to fit into a mold than it is to be entirely one of a kind. These aren't the Lamberts of Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" or even the Jarretts of Judith Guest's "Ordinary People," but rather the kind of family that fights with fists and wicked rejoinders. "You got fat" is how Wendy greets Phillip, literally over their father's dead body, and from that point forward, the niceties among the family members consist of an ongoing mix of put-downs that begin as playful and end up biting and occasionally violent.
"We are injured and angry, scared and sad," Judd says on the sixth day of shiva. "Some families, like some couples, become toxic to each other after prolonged exposure." What becomes clear to Judd is that the dealings with his siblings are not entirely unlike those with his wife: At some point, they've all cheated on each other, physically and emotionally, in ways small and large. This discovery is sweet, cataclysmic and, at times, recognizable in a kind of "Big Chill" way, but it's also where the book stumbles. Too often these set-pieces of sibling interactions (and the occasional chance sexual encounters with ex-girlfriends from yearbooks past) can be overly madcap -- a notable scene includes flying baby poop landing on a lunch plate -- and perhaps too intentionally adaptable for the screen. In fact, Tropper frequently has Judd imagining that he's inside the film of his own life, appropriate lighting and all. This tacit acknowledgment only makes more noticeable the feeling that Nora Ephron is reading the book over your shoulder and making casting and location notes in the margins.
There's nothing perfect here for the Foxmans -- a father dead and a son cuckolded, and that's just what can be revealed without spoiler -- and Tropper wisely lets these characters exist with -- and without -- dignity. "This Is Where I Leave You" is able to transcend any small quibbles by being consistently surprising. Tropper keeps the reader off-balance by changing the allegiances between siblings and spouses, friends and enemies, lovers and losers, and the result is a novel that charms by allowing for messes, loose ends and the reality that there's only one sure ending for everyone.