Things aren’t going well for Judd Foxman. His wife Jen has been carrying on a torrid affair with his boss. His father has just died of cancer and on the day of the funeral Jen informs him she’s pregnant. And that’s only the beginning of the poignant and hilarious events that pour forth with an almost manic intensity in Jonathan Tropper’s darkly comic contemporary family saga, This Is Where I Leave You.

Mort Foxman’s dying request is that his wife and four adult children observe the Jewish mourning practice of shiva, remaining together for seven days following his burial. “It’s like a wake,” Judd observes, “except it’s going to last for seven days, and there’s no booze.” Mort’s widow Hillary is a psychiatrist who’s authored a best-selling book on child rearing. Now, she’s forced to confront the consequences of applying her (sometimes bizarre) prescriptions to the rearing of her brood.

Within the walls of the family homestead, the Foxman children wrestle mightily with their demons as they sort out their father’s legacy. Romances are rekindled; punches are thrown; and in one theatrical scene after another the members of the clan pick the scabs from their psychic wounds while re-enacting—in a single chaotic week—the emotional struggles of a lifetime. Tropper’s triumph in this sly and sympathetic novel lies in making us care deeply about a group of people who on the surface aren’t especially likeable and who ruthlessly expose each other’s character flaws as they engage in some shockingly bad behavior. In all that, they’re fully human in the best and worst senses of the word.

The story of the Foxman family is messy, painful, funny, sad and, in the end, oh so real. You don’t have to be Jewish to wince in pain or laugh with joy at the pageant of domestic comedy and drama on display here. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this vibrant story, but if you want to venture a try there’s only one word for it—and that’s life.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

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