How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper

[26 July 2007]

By Michael Keefe

Jonathan Tropper emerged in 2004 with his debut novel, the hilarious and poignant The Book of Joe. About a young and successful novelist-cum-screenwriter who must return home to face all the people he’s lampooned, Tropper’s first book was an unqualified winner. His second, 2005’s Everything Changes, felt a little rushed, although it, too, balanced well its mix of comedy and endearing characters trapped between their commitments to others and their own journeys of self-discovery. Are you thinking this sounds a bit like the themes of a Nick Hornby novel? Well, you’re right. Tony Parsons has also mined similar territory with 2001’s Man and Boy and some less compelling follow-ups. If Hornby and Parsons are the prime examples of UK “lad lit”, then American author Jonathan Tropper leads the “guy lit” genre.

His latest, How to Talk to a Widower, is about Doug, a guy in his late 20s who’s a slacker and a writer. But we could have guessed that much before cracking the spine. What sets Tropper’s third novel apart from his others—and, indeed, from the works of any of his contemporaries—is the presence of a grief so strong it becomes another character: the book’s antagonist. When we first meet Doug, he has been a widower for one year (no allusion to John Irving intended), his sexy, successful, and older wife Hailey having died in a plane crash. Doug is a wreck; barely functional and just managing to keep his career afloat by writing essays about his sadness. Clearly, at the novel’s outset, Grief has the upper hand.

Of course, Doug isn’t truly alone. A host of other characters continually circle around him, trying to pull him up off the mat. Of these, his teenage stepson Russ is both the funniest and the most highly skilled at ineptly dragging Doug back into the world of the living. They hadn’t formed a very tight bond while Hailey was alive, but the relationship that develops between these two hapless guys is the central force that propels this novel forward, as well as providing most of its laugh-out-loud antics and truly sweet moments.

Doug’s family is another force acting against the dark inertia of Grief. His baby sister, Debbie, is getting married soon, and his twin sister, Claire, would rather manage Doug’s life than her own. His parents are a mess, too—a very real and touching mess. Tropper is great at developing characters who seem believable even when they’re acting in ridiculous ways. You will come to care about these people as their lives spill out before you.

The novel is weakest when we’re presented with Doug’s articles. They seem implausible as journalism of any kind. The language and the level of self-involvement are worthy only of journal entries. It’s all telling and no showing. Fortunately, these chapters don’t overwhelm the story, which is mostly absorbing. The book’s awful cover would have you believing that Doug really enjoys being a widower, what with the hot chicks whispering in his ear all day long. Fortunately, Tropper makes Doug’s forays into dating messy and awkward and raw. These attempts at finding new love really aren’t the thrust of the novel, though.

This is a story of overcoming tragedy to reform new and deeper connections with the people who are already around. Of course, it is also about finally growing up. That’s what all the good lad/guy lit books are about, and How to Talk to a Widower is one of the good ones.

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