Psychologists make a living by shepherding their clients through the most stressful and seemingly impassable stretches of life: divorce and loss, trauma and change. These talking heads on the topic of human emotion urge us to explore our feelings and find the source of our pain.
Novelists, on the other hand, make their living by exposing that pain in order to reveal the human condition in its rawest state: sometimes confusing, other times maddening, and often plainly absurd. Jonathan Tropper has done just that in this poignant yet funny meditation on life.
Judd Foxman is the everyman whose otherwise normal, banal life suddenly is torn asunder. When he finds his wife in bed with his radio-personality boss, he is holding her surprise birthday cake, a chocolate-strawberry cheesecake, with "thirty-three candles and one for good luck." Standing in the doorway, frozen by the sight of his marriage crumbling around him, Judd does what any man in his situation would do: he launches the cake, burning candles and all, right at the derrière of the man who will surely become his former boss.
Judd retreats into a self-imposed "hibernation in the Lees' dank, rented basement, growing roots on the sagging couch that the advertisement had called a 'daybed.' The room smelled of mildew and laundry detergent, and when it was quiet, I could hear the lone, bare lightbulb humming in its socket. ... Rock bottom rose up to meet me."
But when his father dies a short time later, he is forced up from the couch and into his parents' home to sit Shiva for seven days. This is the first time in a decade that the Foxman family has gathered en masse for an extended period, and as visitors arrive and platters of food fill the tables, Judd and his family sit in their Shiva chairs, pushing smiles and small talk through their grief.
Over the course of the novel, the molecules that form Judd's life tumble over one another, rearranging and reshaping and attempting to form into a solid state. He revisits his past while attempting to envision the future. He opens old wounds, roots around in the pain of them and heals them (hopefully) forever. He comes to know his family in ways he never had before: the truth of who they are and who they have become. And he is challenged to leave rock bottom behind and move forward even if he doesn't know in what direction he is headed.
Through it all, Tropper manages to craft a poignant story without a heavy hand, leaving space for laughter and revelation to exist alongside loss and regret.
Kim Schmidt has written reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, Publishers Weekly, BookPage and the Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Illinois.