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How to Talk to a Widower


How to Talk to a Widower

reading the flap copy for Jonathan Tropper’s latest novel, I
prepared myself for a slightly depressing but mostly hilarious read
--- a book that would make me think (a little) and laugh (a lot)
but ultimately would have little effect on my consciousness. Boy
was I wrong. HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER is instead the type of read
that makes you feel like you’re getting punched in the gut
over and over again, and while there is certainly an intense amount
of pain, the truth is that it eventually feels worth it.

Although you would never guess it from the deceptively handsome,
hip and pulled-together leading man on the cover, HOW TO TALK TO A
WIDOWER’s protagonist is as disheveled and downtrodden as
they come. After his gorgeous and supposedly out-of-his-league
wife, Hailey, dies in a plane crash, 29-year-old Doug Parker spends
the next year drinking copious amounts of Jack Daniels, moping
around the house in his grubby underwear, and generally pretending
that he doesn’t exist. He is pathetic. He is painfully
vulnerable. And he is undeniably annoying to the rest of the world
who, although they “understand his need to grieve,”
feel that it’s time for him to buck up and get his life back
in order --- especially in time for his younger sister
Debbie’s wedding.

The problem, of course, is that Doug isn’t quite ready to
move on. All of Hailey’s belongings are still strewn about
the house --- the red bra that she hung on the doorknob the night
before she died; the racy paperback she was reading, still on the
night table. On top of the physical reminders, a day doesn’t
go by without some sort of song, smell or taste triggering a memory
of their life together. It’s as if life before Hailey
didn’t exist. And life after her is just as hard for him to
imagine --- until his family steps in.

Luckily for Doug (and HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER’s guiltily
enraptured audience), the Parkers are a wholly dysfunctional yet
completely outrageous and lovable bunch. His pill-popping mother is
a bonafide kook but oddly wise at the most inopportune moments. His
twin sister Claire, who is in the throws of leaving her boring
husband, is a pregnant, raging lunatic with an attitude and a potty
mouth, but the one who finally kickstarts Doug’s program for
recovery. Perhaps the most interesting character is Doug’s
father, who suffers from bouts of dementia. “There are days
when he’s lucid and days when he’s lost, but even on
the good days, he’s never quite sure about the details.
He’s a man constantly in search of context,” but a man
who adores his family unconditionally, nonetheless. Throw them all
together in a room and you’re guaranteed a round of laughs
--- a welcome respite from the otherwise relentless misery.

As the days draw closer, Debbie’s wedding to Mike (whom she
met at Doug and Hailey’s house while Doug was sitting shiva)
provides the ideal backdrop (and inter-character tension) for
Doug’s road to recovery. On the one hand, his family is busy
thinking about things like dinner napkins and who might give Debbie
away (the loony-toons father? The embittered, widowed brother?),
and on the other, Doug is busy mucking up the
back-on-the-dating-scene process by sleeping with his rich
neighbor’s buxom wife. Throw in the not-so-minor detail of
where Russ, Hailey’s pot-smoking 15-year-old son from a
previous marriage, will live, and you have the perfect recipe for
unmitigated disaster.

And this is precisely why HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER is so
hilarious, unabashedly heartbreaking --- and so true-to-life.
It’s so rare that a writer can seamlessly convey the fragile
(and very real) balance between comedy, tragedy and the bittersweet
without completely overdoing the melodrama or making it kitschy,
but Tropper manages to do it successfully without even seeming to
try. Doug’s soliloquies on all the various stages of grief
are downright breathtaking --- not to mention incredibly moving ---
and it’s a wonder that the author isn’t a widow himself
to have been able to describe such a bewildering process with such
apparent ease.

Tropper’s newest novel is ultimately uplifting, but not
unrealistically so. And while the undefined ending leaves more than
a few questions unanswered, it only reinforces the idea that
grieving --- and living --- is an unpredictable process and you
never know what might arise around the corner. Without a doubt, HOW
TO TALK TO A WIDOWER is sometimes funny, often poignant (in a dark
sort of way) and relentlessly depressing. But is it a worthwhile
journey to embark upon? You bet.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 22, 2011

How to Talk to a Widower
by Jonathan Tropper

  • Publication Date: July 17, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385338902
  • ISBN-13: 9780385338905