Literary Flashback: Reading ‘This Is Where I Leave You’

Kimberly Tolleson



Literary Flashback: Reading ‘This Is Where I Leave You’

This is Where I Leave You

Jonathan Tropper


339 pages


When news broke that the always lovable Tina Fey would be starring in the upcoming film This is Where I Leave You, it seemed like a good opportunity to go back and check out the 2009 novel by Jonathan Tropper. 

The plot fits neatly into a one-week frame, when four divided siblings return to their childhood home in suburban New York to sit shiva for their late father. The narrator is Judd Foxman, a somewhat schlubby, middle-aged average nice guy. At the time his dad passes away, he’s recently found out that his wife has been sleeping with his alpha-male boss, which results in Judd moving into a basement apartment and quitting his job. Though all the Foxman siblings are surprised that their dad – a hardly devout Jew – asked the family to sit shiva as his dying wish, Judd doesn’t have much else going on and can’t object too much. His other siblings are a little more put out. Wendy flies in from California with her hedge-fund husband and three small kids. Paul has to get coverage for the family business for a full week. And the whole family was surprised that the youngest and flakiest brother Phillip even showed up. The mother, a cool-headed matriarch, still resides in their childhood home where the shiva takes place. She is a renowned psychologist who expertly makes her children uncomfortable by discussing everyone’s personal issues openly and by wearing revealing outfits a few decades too young for her.

As one might expect, when all these semi-estranged siblings and their provocative mother are forced to be under the same roof for seven days, shenanigans, fights, heartfelt moments, and confessions ensue. At the outset, it all feels a little too set up and predictable, almost a bad knockoff of Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections. Many characters have a too-familiar feel to them: the troubled youngest brother, who is somehow always mixed up with models and mischief; the negligent hedge fund husband constantly yelling into his Bluetooth earpiece; the hometown sweetheart with whom Judd has a marriage pact if neither has someone by the age of 40.

The book is also rife with bizarre slapstick moments that feel expressly added for a film version rather than a work of literature. When the overweight woman sits on a rickety chair, or when someone stands too close to a pool, you know what’s about to happen. Cakes and training toilets are thrown, towels are dropped, fire alarm sprinklers go off, and so on.

Despite dabbling in clichés, Tropper does often deliver moments of real insight and observation. The best writing in the story is perhaps Judd’s reflection on a marriage gone wrong. He admits that getting married early might have been their mistake: “We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that we knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from our reality. We were going to be different.” He describes their early selves as “partners in narcissism… like we were the first people in history to ever get it exactly right.” But after a while, like all couples, things that used to be cute become annoying; farts cease to be surreptitiously stifled; and even sex becomes rote and forgettable, and hard to detach from day-to-day marital resentments. Judd explains these fairly universal and uncomfortable truths about the evolution of relationships, saying, "When you share all of the administrative headaches of life with someone else, small piles of unaddressed, quotidian resentments build up over time like plaque, lingering on the fringes of your consciousness even as you kiss, lick, and fondle each other." Even in the heat of the moment, Jen might be thinking about how Judd never fully closes the dresser drawers; meanwhile he could be dwelling about the way Jen spits large chunks of toothpaste into the sink and leaves them to harden into “little winter-fresh slugs” that have to be scraped off the porcelain.

Judd also muses on how things function post-relationship. When he sees Jen and their old group of friends leaving the movie theater together, he realizes: “It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat.”

All the free time and repetition of sitting shiva certainly doesn’t help Judd from his overthinking. As he and his siblings watch a sea of mourners come in everyday, bringing bagels and condolences, the family is allowed quite a lot of reflection time. After days of sitting in their low shiva chairs, Judd admits, “We develop a sad infatuation with the bared legs of our visitors,” becoming preoccupied with the veins, cracked toe nails, and surgery scars of the mostly elderly visitors. The effects of sitting shiva seem palpable: the boredom, the urge to think about something else, the contemplation of aging. It doesn’t help that Judd has to answer the same questions over and over about his father’s decline in health, the absence of his wife, and the offers of being set up on new dates.

Though many of the characters are introduced through clichés, by the end of the book, Tropper fleshes them out, if not entirely, then at least enjoyably. The best example of this is Jen, who is introduced within the first few pages  as thoroughly unlikeable, both for her infidelity and being implausibly “gym-toned and honey-haired and wide-eyed and vulnerable.” However, Tropper takes his time and thankfully reveals her as a more human and complex person, with her own emotions and motives our narrator may not have at first considered.

This is Where I Leave You is one of those rare books that can leave the reader without a strong impression – there are equal aspects to like and dislike, and overall, it comes out being simply OK. It’s also a rare read in that it may actually make a better movie than a book. Its snarky dialogue, physical humor, and tidy seven-day plot beg to be redone into a two-hour rom-com/dramedy. Instead of going out of your way to read the book, it may be more sensible to wait for the adaptation to hit theaters, which will hopefully include all the best one-liners and a few less slapstick gags. If you were hoping for a recommendation for a funny and deranged family drama, but with more nuance and literary weight, pick up Franzen’s The Corrections instead.


Author Bio:

Kimberly Tolleson is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine and author of the Literary Flashback column.


For Highbrow Magazine


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