Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two Reviews: Tropper's Family Antics and Russo's Failing Marriage

Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You is, simply put, one of the best books I've read this year. Edgy, witty and fantastically hilarious, the story follows four adult siblings who gather with their mother in their childhood home to sit shiva (the seven days of mourning in Jewish tradition) for their recently deceased father. Our narrator is third of the fourth siblings by age: Judd, a radio producer who has recently caught his wife of nine years cheating on him with his boss, a Howard Stern-style shock jock. And that's merely the kick-start for one hellacious week...

Throughout the week, the siblings constantly quarrel, even boiling over into physical altercations. Even so,  no one ever takes anything too seriously. There's a lot of baggage here, but the family isn't so much dysfunctional as it is damaged. They truly love each other, but they can only handle each other in very small doses. Slowly, they begin to bridge the gaps of their pasts that had driven them apart, and come to terms with their father's death. It doesn't sound like it would be, but God, is it fun to read about.

And that's the one point I can't stress enough: how much pure fun this book is to read. Tropper's voice (as Judd) is just a blast -- a pitch perfect rendition of a mid-30s male. Just consider these two sentences Tropper unleashes within the first 15 pages: "He is the Paul McCartney of our family: Better looking than the rest of us, always looking a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead" and "We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way we knew there were starving children in Africa."  Before you've really even had a chance to settle in, you know you're in for a great time with this book! This Is Where I Leave You is very, very highly recommended! 

Review #2: I had more free time than usual this week, so I also made my way through Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. This novel seemed less like a story and more a "character study" of a marriage. Pock-marked with flashbacks, the book spends nearly two-thirds of its pages in the past examining the events that have led to Jack and Joy Griffin's failing marriage. Some of these are compelling, others are eye-crossingly dull. The end result is a novel that feels more like a first draft at times because it includes so much -- especially at the beginning -- it seemed the writer needed to know about these characters, but that the reader didn't, necessarily, need to know.

The strength of the novel is the real-time action. Framed around two wedding days a year apart (one a Griffin family friend, one the Griffins' daughter Laura), Russo is at his best in scene, not in flashback. Sadly, I kept getting frustrated when Russo would open yet another section with a six- or seven-page flashback before jerking us back to the present. I did, however, really like the characters, and found myself rooting for them.

On the whole, I'd give Cape Magic a "decent, but certainly not great." The novel doesn't approach the emotional intensity and appeal of previous Russo reads like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls -- two fantastic books. But it's definitely worth reading if you enjoy delving into the causes and effects in relationships -- one thing Russo seems to understand and relay very well.


  1. I am adding Tropper's book to my wish list right now.
    I tried Russo years back as everyone raved about Empire Falls. I did not get into it, but that does not mean it is a bad book, he is just not for me.

  2. You sold me on Tropper. I like edgy--

  3. I've got a copy of Tropper's book on my shelf (an ARC I got last summer) and you've convinced me to bump it up to the top of my reading pile. Great review.

  4. Thanks for the comments: Glad you're all convinced! It really is a great read.

  5. I just posted my own review of "This Is Where I Leave You" and then came across yours through some kind of path that I don't quite remember but wanted to say Bravo and Well Done.

    And as far as Russo, I read "Empire Falls" earlier this year and think I'll give "Nobody's Fool" a try as his next book.

  6. I'd never read anything by Tropper before, nor heard of him. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. I am so so glad I did! It's funny, insightful, thought-provoking and sad. I fell in love with all the characters in this book. Tropper has a gift for making the characters extremely three-dimensional,and you'll find yourself laughing and crying right along with them. One of the most "human" books I have ever read, and one of those rare gems that make you never want to get to the last page. Wonderful!

  7. This is a fantastic book and a quick read. It's quick because you can't put it down. Get this book and read it.

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