The World Without You by Joshua Henkin covers the territory of a wonderfully sprawling family saga while taking place over just one Fourth of July long weekend in 2005. It is an intensely emotional look at a family one year after a death and also a realistic portrayal of modern life and how people in a not very tight-knit family might think and behave when brought together.
Leo Frankel died in Iraq on July 4, 2004 at age 32, a journalist. His mother Marilyn, a doctor, has been writing angry letters to the editor about the Iraq war ever since, while his father David, a retired high school teacher, is just now adjusting to the idea that Marilyn plans to leave him after forty years of marriage. Leo was their youngest child – their only son – and their different ways of grieving have split them apart.
At the start of the novel, the family is gathering for a memorial service one year later at Marilyn and David Frankel’s Lenox, Massachusetts country house in the Berkshires, where they’ve spent every summer for forty years, leaving behind the heat of their New York City apartment. In addition to being their only son, Leo was also a brother, a husband, and the father of a two-year-old son.
Leo’s oldest sister Clarissa will come from New York with her academic superstar husband; Lily will come up alone from D.C.; and Noelle will fly in from Israel with her husband – also a convert to Orthodox Judaism – and four young children, with their head coverings and kosher dietary requirements to the carelessly secular habits of the others. But blonde Thisbe, Leo’s young wife, flying in from California with Calder, now age three, may be even more of an outsider than Noelle in the staunchly East Coast Frankel clan. As welcoming as everyone tries to be, no one has seen much of her since she moved back to her home state to go to graduate school in Berkeley, as she and Leo had planned to do. Everyone knows that ongoing family squabbles should be set aside and simmering tensions should go on the back burner at a time like this, but try as they might to focus solely on Leo and the memorial service, their own problems, concerns, and desires of the still-living keep intruding.
The World Without You is full of conversation and back stories, but the action of the book is in the interactions among the different family members. Leo is the central focus of the the gathering and his death is the reason they are all together in one place, but he is gone, absent from the family gathering. His thoughts and feelings during his life are essentially unknowable now; each person is left only with fading memories.
I don’t know why it took me so long to read The World Without You (I think I had the mistaken idea that it was a post-apocalyptic novel) but the softcover edition is coming out in just a few weeks (April 9). I think the cover design of the softcover is better than the hardcover in giving readers a feel for what the novel is about. The image of fireworks alone makes sense after reading the book, but fireworks can be interpreted as joyful or patriotic. The image of fireworks in the distance with the lighted window in the foreground conveys a more immediate sense of grief and loss and the rest of the world moving on.
The World Without You was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. If you like novels about family with multiple generations represented like The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass or Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan, you will want to read this one.
The World Without You
Random House, 2012
Disclosure: I received a free review copy from the author.