"At some point you lose sight of your actual parents; you just see a basketful of history and unresolved issues."Judd Foxman is a man left by his wife for his boss, living in a strangers' basement. He has nowhere to turn. He has a recurrent dream of being an amputee, which, in its various forms, haunts most of his nights. Then his father dies, and to all this a new stress factor is added: apparently his father, a non-religious man, requested that shiva be sat for him by his entire family. Thus, many more characters are introduced: Judd's mother Hillary, a psychologist very much in the vein of Dr. Beverly Hofstadter, a brilliant child-rearing expert who screwed up her own children; Judd's siblings: the dysfunctionally married Wendy, the family screw-up Phillip, the hopeful-until-life altering injury Paul, now in charge of the family business. We also meet the secondary characters: Linda, the next door neighbour, always present, surrogate mother to the kids, and her son Horry, Wendy's high-school flame, who got his head bashed in and as a result lives with his mother to this day. From their meeting on, a classic family-and-friends drama unfolds: old relationships come to life, old injuries and injustices are rekindled, unsavoury sex is had, extramarital sex is also had, you know, all kinds basically. Judd's wife Jen reappears with a surprising piece of news at about half the book, which changes nothing, except that there's one more player on the scene.
The whole book is supposed to convey the effects of a family reunion on the family members, to show off the parallels between the parenting of the different generations, offer a meditation on the relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and their kids. Which, as you might have noticed, is not exactly a new idea. It has been done many times, even in this cultural variation (last time I registered it was Jami Attenberg's brilliant novel The Middlesteins), and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem emerges when you, like Jonathan Tropper's new novel, have very little new to say on the subject. The book has some very nice observations about family and life, but they all ring a little familiar:
We all start out so damn sure, thinking we’ve got the world on a string. If we ever stopped to think about the infinite number of ways we could be undone, we’d never leave our bedrooms.
You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, or play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.
Those are well crafted sentences which go down well, maybe even move you a little, but that's all. The writing in general is a bit lazy, relying maybe a little too heavily on its near-universal subject matter. There are great sub-themes in the book: the "alternate universe" Wendy mentions, where Horry, the otherwise ideal man, is not a seizure-prone incontinent victim of a stupid, unnecessary attack; the relationship between Linda the neighbour and the family: those ties strong in every other but blood sense.
None of the books numerous themes even attempt to dig deep, though. They're all just swimming around on the surface, ending up somewhat disappointing to the reader. Nevertheless, the book is still entertaining enough to get through, so maybe a good read for an airplane ride or a carry-around book for your daily travels. So: entertaining and occasionally witty, but ultimately (and disappointingly) shallow.
Apparently, there is now a film being made based on the book. It doesn't seem like a good idea, but I'll definitely be on the look-out for it, in case it manages to cash in on some of the good points that remained undeveloped in the book.