Friday, August 22, 2014

Very Carefully, Apparently

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper


Two years after Doug and Hailey were married, Hailey died in a plane crash, leaving Doug her home in the suburbs, her angry son who doesn't want to live with his father because of his new trophy wife, a large settlement from the airline and Doug's life in a shambles. That was a year ago, it's time to move on, or so his family seems to think; but how can he?

From this summary, don't think this is going to be a heavy drama filled with angst, tears and heartbreak. In fact, it may surprise you that this is actually a very funny book. To do this, Tropper investigates how someone in Doug's position might do very idiotic things. Humor might seem slightly out of place but Doug is a columnist who hijacks his satirical column in order to unleash "rapid-fire bursts of raw, unadulterated pain," or what he calls his "emotional Tourette's." Again, this might seem heavy, but Tropper deals with pain with such honesty one can't help but feel Doug is absolutely human and realistic. If for nothing else, I'd urge you to read this book for Tropper's perfect character development of Doug throughout this story.

Tropper doesn't stop with Doug. He also brings in Doug's less than perfect family - into the mix, he brings Doug's senile father, twin sister Claire, ex-actress mother and younger sister Deborah. Then there's Russ, Doug's stepson who has a less than ideal relationship with his father and stepmother (and, occasionally, the law and other authorities). Among a few other characters, there's Doug's literary agent who thinks Doug's suddenly popular column can be a book. Each one of these people has real-life faces and their own problems so while this may seem like soap-opera fodder, it is exactly how the world really is.

Of course, since we see everything through Doug's eyes this is primarily Doug's story. The reader understands this fully with his own myopic view of his world, with him narrating the story mostly in first person. I say mostly because in a few occasions, another person speaks, but these don't detract from the intimacy of this story. Since Doug into a writer Tropper can give his protagonist as much of his own writing ability, so that the language in this book sometimes borders on the poetic, but never bombastic.

We also get to read two of Doug's columns to see why his literary agent is so excited. This also furthers the agent's part in the story, and allows Tropper to show this relationship by giving us some of the emails that go back and forth between them. Through these literary mechanisms, we are kept on our toes and this contributes to the pure readability of this novel and like-ability of the characters. In addition, Tropper's insertions of the background of this story are so subtlety placed throughout this story that we never get bogged down with long, boring explanations.

There's something very touching about everything Doug and the people in his life are going through. For instance, Doug describes himself as being "young, slim, sad and beautiful" and because of this, "anything can happen." As hopeful as this seems, Doug also realizes that this tag line applies to not only him and the realization that the "anything" might not always be positive. This duality is what makes this book such an engrossing read. Couple this with the humor and honesty Tropper brings is probably the reason why it could bring you to tears. Still, I can't impress upon you enough that there's nothing too sentimental here since Troper plays on his character's multiple faults, showing us how absurd they are, while still allowing them to be human and sometimes infuriating.

I'm hoping I've been able to impart just how lovely this book is. Tropper is a master at character development, using first person to make us connect with his protagonist on a very emotional level, while including other literary devices to keep this from becoming monotone. The injection of human comedy onto the result of a human tragedy keeps this story from becoming maudlin. After all that, I cannot do otherwise than highly recommend that you read this book, which I'm giving a full five out of five stars.

You can buy this book in paperback from Book Depository, as an iBook, from Barnes & Nobel, via Kobo or as an Amazon Kindle book.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)