I’ll be honest. I read this book after seeing the previews for the movie (with an all-star, comedic cast! Exclamation point, exclamation point!). However, massive, nerdy bibliophile that I am, I decided that I should probably read the novel first. And in conclusion: I could have just seen the movie. Certainly, the book included elements that were cut from the final film, but unlike most movie adaptations, this one captured almost all of the thematic elements and major plot points of the novel. Which, quite frankly, was a little underwhelming.
The back cover reads: the death of Judd Foxman’s father marks the first time that the entire Foxman clan has congregated in years. There is, however, one conspicuous absence: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose affair with his radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public. Simultaneously mourning the demise of his father and his marriage, Judd joins his family as they reluctantly sit shiva–and spend seven days and nights under the same roof. As long-standing grudges resurface, secrets are revealed and old passions are reawakened. Then Jen arrives with new of her own: she’s pregnant. This Is Where I Leave You is a riotously funny, emotionally raw novel about love, marriage, divorce, family, and the ties that bind–whether we like it or not.
Here’s the thing — the book was pleasant to read. It was easy, flowing from chapter to chapter with quick pacing, and enough episodic comic moments to keep from being boring. It is, overall, quite a good book. The problem is that it’s in a genre with other books (and other writers, for that matter) who deal with the same subject material and do it better. At it’s heart, this is the dysfunctional family mini-epic: taking place over a brief period of time, but extemporizing with all of the past history that makes the family members who they are today. It’s been done before, and better — by Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, by Jeffrey Eugenides, A.S. Byatt, and Michael Chabon, or in the movie realm, by Everybody’s Fine. It’s funny, but not riveting, thematic but not deep.
The title, and the back of the book, clearly delineate the main theme: leavetakings. The book focuses on the four children of the Foxman family: Paul, the son who stayed; Judd, who had it all together until he suddenly didn’t; Wendy, the only daughter and semi-mother figure for her brothers; and Phillip, the baby of the family and the family screw-up.
Every character leaves: Judd, Wendy, and Phillip left home, left the small town community, and left people behind. The book is centered around a funeral — the most permanent leaving of all. As illustrated by the back of the book, Judd’s wife leaves him for his boss, and he immediately leaves her more permanently. As the book progresses, we see the other small leavings throughout — the way that their father left their mother months ago, as his health declined; the way that Wendy and Judd both left high school girlfriends. Phillips gets a girlfriend and loses her in the course of the novel, and we find out some of the backstory as to why Judd and Paul have such a strained relationship.
The biggest flaw in the book is that the family doesn’t seem very dysfunctional; they fight regularly, but there’s never an indication that they fail to talk or communicate — in fact, it seems as though, all things considered, this family has itself together. They’re stable, they’re constant, and they’re boring. Nobody seems to have a driving passion — we know vaguely that Paul manages the family store, and that Judd is a radio manager, but there’s no indication of whether they like their jobs or not. We’re told that Phillip is a wandering drifter, but he overall seems relatively well-adjusted, that Wendy is in a loveless marriage, but she has no desire to leave, that Judd wants kids, but its uncertain if he wants a full family or not. The characters have no stake in anything, so the reader also lacks that emotional attachment. When the characters all leave at the end of the book, heading back to their separate lives, there’s no catharsis, no emotional connection. It’s the inevitable — shiva is over, so everyone leaves. But, with the mood presented by the book, I assume that they will all get together to celebrate Hannukah, or Yom Kippur, just as I assume that they have in the past.
A couple nobody saw coming.
In a sad, certainly unintentional twist, it is the characters who stayed, the characters outside the family, who have the most weight. Horry, a neighbor who got in a horrible car accident in high school and was not able to leave, who still lives with his mother and needs people to pick him up from work, but who is in tune enough to know what he’s missing. Horry and Wendy were childhood sweethearts, and there is still something there. Neither Horry nor Wendy expects anything to happen, though — they both know that Wendy will return to her suit-wearing, business-dealing husband. This is the sole relationship with any real heft to it, in either the movie or the book. It’s so clear that Horry wants to leave, but he and the reader know that he will never be able to.
Then there’s Paul, the one son who stayed. The reason why he stayed in the town isn’t clear in the movie, but in the book, Paul is played up as the perfect son — popular and athletic, and almost guaranteed a college scholarship — until he suffers a grievous injury protecting Judd. There’s resentment there — mirrored, by his and his wife’s attempts to have a baby, while Judd, who is recently separated from his wife and isn’t even considering parenthood, is the one who has a pregnant (ex) wife. The problem here is that the town never takes on a character — it’s certainly no New York City, but nor does it seem to be the kind of soul-crushing small town usually associated with these kinds of stories. The Foxmans were never poor — they never needed to escape.
In the end, it’s a mediocre book, and really, a mediocre movie. If you’re going to do one or the other, however, I recommend the movie. It really is a fantastic cast, filled with charming characters. Jason Bateman does his normal thing, so fans of his should enjoy his performance; Jane Fonda is a joy to watch as the matriarch of the clan, who has demanded that they all return home to sit shiva; Ben Schwarz is hilarious as the local rabbi and former friend of Phillip; Adam Driver is unbelievably charming as Phillip (seriously — fans of Girls should check out the movie purely to seem him playing a halfway decent person); and Connie Britton and Timothy Olyphant steal the few, small scenes that they are in. Plus, the movie is under two hours, whereas it will take six hours or so to read the book.