The formula of the dysfunctional-family-reunion story is as predictable as the stages of mourning. Family members come together, hate each other, remember the good times of old and the bad times that pushed them apart, deny responsibility, accept responsibility, and come to terms with one another in a way that might be temporary, but lasts long enough for some teary farewells.
Jonathan Tropper, author of The Book Of Joe, Everything Changes, and How To Talk To A Widower, does little to break from the mold with his latest novel. But what it lacks in originality of structure, it makes up in wit, delivering plenty of lasting laughs, even as it strives to make eyes well up on cue.
Narrator Judd Foxman is suffering a midlife crisis after walking in on his wife and his boss screwing, which ends his marriage and job at the same time. After he also loses his father, he’s forced to return home to spend a week observing the traditional Jewish period of mourning with his mother, three siblings, and their families, who all seem to be trying to get their lives together.
The humor is a mix of vulgarity—one scene features a candlelit chocolate cheesecake being shoved up someone’s ass—and bitter, drier comedy where characters make light of situations that could otherwise overwhelm them.
In spite of several lines about how romantic comedies have given people seriously messed-up expectations about the way the world works, it’s unsurprising that Tropper is already working on adapting the book as a feature film. This speedy read seems like it was written to be a movie, maybe starring John Cusack.
“What might have been” is the most significant running theme, with characters regularly considering the hands dealt to them by situations mostly out of their control: an injury that ended a baseball career before it started, a true love left brain-damaged by an accident, a baby that died in the womb. The emotions feel real and sometimes painfully raw, but Tropper spins them with laugh-out-loud and often absurd humor, keeping the overall tone optimistic.