Review: The World Without You

A novel by Josh Henkin, The World Without You, Vintage
Reviewed by Adam Blackman

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The World Without You by Josh Henkin, newly released in paperback, tells the story of a family splintered by the loss of a loved one in Iraq. It is a novel primarily focused on family.  Fourth of July sits in the backdrop as the Frankel family gathers to memorialize Leo, a journalist captured on assignment then killed one year ago.

If, in the polemics of grief, one side of the aisle strives to find footing and the other to stop time, Leo’s mother and father are in opposing camps. For Marilyn “there is nobody else” but Leo. She publicly rejected President Bush’s condolences and attempts to martyr her son; she has spent the last year firing off anti-war Op-Eds, cross-referencing newspapers to keep an accurate number of war casualties on the wall in the kitchen. David has sought solace in activities: running, studying and singing opera, peering through his telescope, taking a cooking class, which Marilyn calls Slicing and Dicing 101. “You always liked learning things,” one of his daughters tells him later and he replies with quiet, pained determination, “I still do.” The reasonableness that once balanced their relationship now assails Marilyn, and after 42 years of marriage, they are separating.

Leo’s sisters don’t know what they’re walking into, but bring their own baggage to the family summer home in the Berkshires.  Clarissa, spurred by the loss of her baby brother to get pregnant, pulls her husband into a motel after a roadside thermometer check suggests she might be, at that very moment, ovulating.  Her obsessiveness strains her marriage and the roadside stop forces Lily, a lawyer, (who met her longtime boyfriend when she volunteered for the democratic primary ten years prior), to pick up Noelle, who’s become an Orthodox Jew that lives in Jerusalem. Noelle voted absentee for Bush, not once, but twice – even after Leo died – and it is all Lily can do, as they drive across Massachusetts, not to scream: “You killed your own brother!”  But in The World Without You blood runs deeper than oil.  Growing up, Lily and Clarissa graduated at the top of their classes while Noelle, who acutely felt her mother’s befuddlement at her lesser intellectual abilities, asserted herself by failing spectacularly, on report cards and in her behavior.  She was notoriously promiscuous, and while her current religious strictness is, according to Lily, “another installment in her random life,” it is clearly a continuation of the zero sum game of siblings vying for parental affection.

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Thickening this family stew is Leo’s widow, Thisbe, who arrives with a secret. Before Leo’s death, she asked him for a separation because it was easier than asking him to stop traveling for work (and compromising the adventurous spirit recalled by all as one of his defining traits) and because of the nagging fear that her and Leo’s three year old son would reveal her new boyfriend. The boyfriend has recently asked her to move in with him and this hangs over her head as she wonders where she fits in at the Frankel family table.

The divergence between a mother’s unending grief and a widow’s need to love again was, according to Henkin,the novel’s seed, and it’s a rich enough tension. One of the novel’s great strengths is that it’s an ensemble piece, alternating points of view of the main players (except for David, whose “mute protest” after Marilyn blurts out about the separation is a subtle counterpoint to Marilyn’s more voluble, public protest) and interweaving a colorful supporting cast, such as Leo’s stodgy, filthily rich grandmother and Noelle’s obnoxious husband. Wisely, Henkin leaves the gruesome details of Leo’s torture and murder to our imagination and develops Leo from the stories, associations, and aspirations of those closest to him. In doing so he makes a political statement: that even those furthest from the battlefield can be affected to their core.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His new novel, The World Without You, has just been released in paperback from Vintage Books. It has been named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

Adam Blackman is the Director of Operations at a non-profit bookstore in New York City, volunteer reader for One Story magazine, owner of an MFA – insists on balding gracefully.