Say midlife crisis and your first images are bound to be impractical sports cars, hair implants, and gold jewelry. The words predictable, pathetic or cliché may come to mind. Maybe it is a result of my own age that I’m feeling a little less harsh and a little more empathetic about the experiences of those entering middle adulthood. Maybe it’s discovering the novels of Jonathan Tropper. I recently finished Tropper’s latest novel This is Where I Leave You , which reads like a lengthy case study of Erickson’s stage of creativity versus stagnation. Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development cite the major conflicts during each phase of life. In the stage of creativity versus stagnation, individuals search for meaning, connection, and legacy in order to avoid feeling uninvolved, unproductive, and detached. In short, this stage is the midlife crisis. It’s an existential crisis that may not be much fun to experience, but makes for really great literature.
In the first chapter of This is Where I Leave You , Judd Foxman learns of the death of his father. This is not a surprising revelation, as Judd’s father had been ill for quite some time. What is more shocking is that his father, who by all accounts was an atheist, has asked that his children sit shiva for him. What unfolds is a little something like this: Seven days, four adult children, a few fist fights, a little infidelity, and a couple of major revelations.
The story is humorous, but it’s also amazingly powerful, so that the characters are never caricatures. Instead, they are deeply flawed, average humans that a reader may identify and empathize with effortlessly. Tropper is an author whose sentences should be read twice or three times and out loud. Judd’s explanation of the end of his marriage is one example of this blend of humor and poignancy:
My marriage ended the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake. Marriages fall apart. Everyone has reasons, but not one really knows why…We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that we knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from our reality. We were going to be different…Love made us partners in narcissism. (14-15)
Judd struggles to make sense of his life as it is now, and how quickly things can change. What makes the novel so compelling is that he is not alone. Each character—even the most minor—is well developed and struggling with the same issues of meaning, forgiveness, and connection. Each character is in crisis and thrown together with family members under the worst of circumstances. Judd comments, “as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (60).
There will be no tidy ending for the Foxman family. There are revelations, yes. There are not many resolutions, though. If you’re a fan of happy endings, this may not be the book for you. But for those who want their characters flawed, and their endings messy, Tropper’s latest novel will not disappoint.