The World Without You
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***National Jewish Book Awards 2012, Finalist***
JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for Fiction
From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Matrimony ["Beautiful . . . Brilliant."—Michael Cunningham], a moving, mesmerizing new novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy.
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
© Publishers Weekly
Henkin's best book to date. Complex characters whose lives are woven together with great skill by the author. Very readable.
(The previous reviewer gives a low rating based on missing pages. But that's clearly one of those periodic random iPad glitches. It has nothing to do with the book, which is not missing any pages. Folks should rate the book, not post a rating based on frustration from a messed up download.)
This is an absorbing, fast, entertaining read featuring a great story, great characters, great details (one character "almost lost a toe, cutting it on a Pringles can during a water fight"). I loved the one-liners. "He used to work for a catering company, and the reigning wisdom was, a third more food for a Jewish event, a third less drink." Wesleyan is a college "where the students idea of exercise was to walk to the store to buy cigarettes."
Though the context is a family that lost a member in the Iraq War, the book did not strike me as heavy-handedly political; the book probably would have worked almost as well if the character had died of cancer and the grieving mother had become an anti-smoking activist instead of an antiwar activist. It struck me as more a book about family and relationships and mourning than about war.
The book is about the aftermath of a death, so it has a certain sadness about it, though not oppressively so. It winds up on a fairly upbeat note (I think I can say that without spoiling the story).
The author is a friend of mine.
A deeply affecting character-driven family novel
I've been meaning to read Matrimony, Joshua Henkin's previous novel for years, but when I heard about this new novel, I decided to start with it. I'm so glad I did. I read The World Without You mostly in public places, which isn't particularly unusual for me. What is worth mentioning, however, is that nearly every chapter of this novel brought tears to my eyes. Some chapters left me sobbing, which is something I generally try to avoid in public places, but this novel was too good to put down in airports, on airplanes and on the bus.
Despite taking place over a few days, Henkin masterfully constructs these characters fully. I never got confused as to which person, and they seemed like real people, was which. Part of the fun for me was the setting in the Berkshires, near where my husband grew up and I, too, love to spend summers. Essentially, this novel is all about character and writing:
"In her twenties, she used to buy condoms with a casualness that bordered on disdain, but this feels different to her. There's something more private about pregnancy than about sex, and although she understands the two are connected, it's the trying to conceive that feels personal to her."
As I looked back on the numerous passages I marked, I was still surprised to see that all of them were character-based statements. Henkin is a beautiful writer, and despite the tragic death at the novel's center, the emotions I felt as I read never felt forced or stemming from manipulation. Instead, they stemmed from real grief felt for these people.
Favorite passage: "She's suspicious of people who don't snoop; she thinks it suggests a lack of curiosity."
The verdict: The World Without You is a deeply affecting, character-driven novel and one I won't soon forget. Highly recommended.