This is Where I Leave You

Book titles like this always intrigue me. Who’s speaking? Where is “this”? Who’s being left? Who does the leaving? (don’t worry, no spoilers in this review!)

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I’m glad I read this book by Jonathan Tropper even though it’s quite different from my norm. It’s crass, comic, and tragic all at the same time. And so wryly observant.

Judd Foxman is a recently cuckolded husband, 34 years old. He catches his beautiful wife of ten years cheating on him with his macho boss. We meet him at rock bottom, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s basement, when he learns from his older sister Wendy that their dad died. The Foxmans are Jewish and though their dad didn’t believe in God, he wanted the family to sit shiva.

So Judd, Wendy, and their other brothers Paul and Phillip reconvene at their mother’s home with their partners to mourn for seven days.

Judd, of course, goes alone. He says in one of his acute one-liners that are scattered throughout the book, “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”

Even though it’s apparent that their dad’s dying request for them to sit shiva is a plot device to get all the members of this highly dysfunctional family together for seven days to sort through their crap, it works. Or you don’t care if it really works because getting such damaged, emotionally repressed, and large personalities all in one room leads to some hilarious and healing moments. And also a lot of sex, brawls, and reopened wounds (both literally and figuratively).

Here’s an example of a passage that had me laughing out loud:

Serena, Wendy’s baby girl, screams like she’s been stabbed. We can all hear her in amplified stereo as we eat lunch, thanks to the high-tech baby monitor Wendy has set up on the table in the front hall, but Wendy doesn’t seem at all inclined to go upstairs and quiet the baby. “We’re Letting Her Cry,” she announces, like it’s a movement they’ve joined. If they’re letting her cry anyway, I don’t really see the point of the baby monitor, but that’s just one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a complete person.

There are times I laughed even though I didn’t really want to because the comedy in the book comes from a sad place. Each of the Foxman children is mourning, not so much their dad,  but where their own lives have (or haven’t) taken them—bad decisions they made, accidents they had no control over, love that feels “completely useless,” or just the relentless passing of time that takes you from the innocence of childhood to the murky quagmire of adulthood, ready or not.

There’s something about coming home that digs all of this up. At the end of the seven days, which equals the end of the book, each character leaves the Foxman home with varying degrees of difference to how they entered it. (As an aside, I think the book’s title works in a number of ways, including the narrator talking to the reader).

I enjoy stories of families and I think that’s why I liked This is Where I Leave You so much. All the Foxmans were so believably messed up and so believably human. And you really want everything to turn out okay for them.

In an interview on The Hollywood Reporter, the journalist asks author Jonathan Tropper, “What do you hope viewers take away from This is Where I Leave You?”

Tropper responds:

It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

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Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

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The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.

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The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.

There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.

The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.

It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.

The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play,  it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.

No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:

She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.

Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.

“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”

“That’s sweet.”

“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”

And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.

“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”

Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?

And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.

“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”

Or:

“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”

“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”

This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.

And the ending, just right.