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Snappy Family Comedy Mixes Patter, Pathos

The hero of This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper's funny and wistful new novel about love and loss, is a type more familiar from recent cinematic comedies than from contemporary literature. You can easily imagine Judd Foxman — witty, hapless, cuckolded — getting monumentally wrecked with the guys in The Hangover.

But Tropper does what lesser writers, not to mention Hollywood, never can: He fully inhabits his protagonist's psyche, giving droll expression to his angst, his private lusts, his tentative hopes. Judd's rueful, irreverent perceptions about the mayhem swirling around him are often more interesting than the mayhem itself.

And what mayhem! Shortly after coming home to find his wife in bed with his boss, a crass, Howard Stern-like radio host with "a cleft that makes his chin look like a tiny ass," Judd learns that his father has died. His presence is requested at his suburban childhood home to sit shiva for a week with his family.

Not much sitting goes on, however. As Judd assesses the wreckage of his marriage, he is presented with a series of fresh erotic opportunities, some of them ridiculous, some of them sweet and promising.

Meanwhile, his cleavage-flashing mother appears to be having an affair — one that began before her husband's death. She's a terrific character — a flashy, surgically rebuilt sexagenarian whom Tropper, to his credit, presents as neither vacuous nor pathetic.

Judd's prodigal younger brother ("He is the Paul McCartney of our family, better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.") has brought home a classy, much older fiancee. And Judd's older brother is regularly summoned to the boudoir by his wife, who is desperate to get pregnant. Unbeknownst to her, there's a baby monitor in the bedroom, broadcasting their goal-oriented trysts to the entire family.

The baby monitor is a cheesy Hollywood twist, and there are more than a few shoehorned into this book. But while a lot of this material is presented as comedy, Tropper manages to convey the grave underlying emotions with sensitivity and sophistication. It's a rare and deft balancing act. Tropper is adapting his novel as a feature film for Warner Bros. It's hard to imagine that watching this story unfold will be as delightful as reading it.

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Jennifer Reese