The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin

Title: The World Without You
Author: Joshua Henkin
Pages: 324
Originally Published: 2012
Format I Read: ARC
Publisher: Pantheon
Rating: [rating:4]


I received this book for free from the publisher. All content and opinions are my own.

Back in 2008, Joshua Henkin was all over the blogsphere, writing guest posts, participating in book clubs, and generally getting the word out about his novel, Matrimony. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Matrimony, which I read, liked and reviewed. So, when Joshua Henkin contacted me about reviewing his newest work, The World Without You, I eagerly accepted a copy.

I promised I tried, but I really can’t do better than the publisher blurb:

It’s July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday. The family has gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings, an intrepid journalist and adventurer who was killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq.

The parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief. Their forty-year marriage is falling apart. Clarissa, the eldest sibling and a former cello prodigy, has settled into an ambivalent domesticity and is struggling at age thirty-nine to become pregnant. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer and the family contrarian, is angry at everyone. And Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew. The last person to see Leo alive, Noelle has flown back for the memorial with her husband and four children, but she feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe —Leo’s widow and mother of their three-year-old son—has come from California bearing her own secret.

Set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War, The World Without You is a novel about sibling rivalries and marital feuds, about volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, about the true meaning of family.

I just loved all of these Frankels. Because each chapter rotated from character to character, the reader is able to see into the private lives and thoughts of almost all of the main characters. Henkin breathed so much life into them, I wanted to beat them, and hug them, and cry with them. But mostly, I was rooting for them all. Joshua Henkin is simply a master at making the glimpses of his characters count:

In all these photos she plays a supporting role – the girlfriend, the wife, the mother – though there’s also one of her alone, in a yellow sundress, a look of perplexity across her face, taken when, she isn’t sure. This photo, in particular, makes her feel obscurely violated, which is strange because for years there were no photos of her in the house, and she took this as evidence that she wasn’t welcomed by Leo’s parents, at least not by Marilyn, who from the start was suspicious of her, why, she doesn’t know. . . . Standing in the hallway in front of the family photos, Thisbe feels vindicated, but she experiences it as false consolation, because now that she’s been given such a prominent place on the mantel, she isn’t sure she wants to be there. (69-71)

It’s just so lovely and revealing. Aside from the amazing characterization, my favorite part of this book was the theme in this book of universal struggles. Everyone is dealing with their own stuff. And being a family is loving people in spite of and sometimes because of their stuff.

My major complaint with this book is that I wanted more of each of these characters. There were so many main characters and just not enough space on the page to give each of them as much time as I wanted. I also felt like the kids didn’t “read” as real, especially three-year-old Calder who asked his mom to “explain baseball to me.” And the adults seemed to have a very cavalier attitude about supervising all of the children.

Those minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this book. I love a good, character-driven novel, and The World Without You is a shining example of the form.

The World Without You comes out next week, on June 19, 2012.

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin [rating:4]

Have you read or reviewed this book too? Feel free to jump in with your thoughts or leave a link to your review in the comments.