Title: The World Without You
Author: Joshua Henkin
Acquired: From the author for review consideration.
Review: It seems like in the weeks before I picked up The World Without You, I’d been reading a bunch of sprawling, multi-generation family epics (Butterfly’s Child and The Chaperone come to mind). The World Without You condenses all of the tension and love and complexity of a big family story into a single long weekend staged in the most difficult circumstances.
On July 4, 2005, three generations of the Frankel family are returning home to their summer home in the Berkshires, perhaps for the last time, for a memorial. One year before, the youngest sibling of the family, journalist Leo, was killed while on assignment in Iraq. As Leo’s three siblings, parents, widow and three-year-old son, slowly converge on their holiday home, tension rises as old family feuds and new personal challenges threaten to overshadow plans to honor Leo’s life with their community.
What continues to fascinate me about The World Without You is how much story author Joshua Henkin is able to write into a book that takes place over just four days. By the time I closed the last page, I felt like I had known the Frankel family for years, like I had been a guest at their kitchen table each summer and seen this family grow together then splinter apart after Leo’s death. It seemed like Henkin accomplished this in a couple of ways. Henkin writes beautifully specific and real dialogue, and sets up very specific interactions between every character, letting people who connect only on the periphery have space to get to know each other.
First, the dialogue. I was constantly impressed by how well Henkin was able to match the rhythm and tone of the way people speak as well as the way internal dialogue informs the way we speak. This passage, from a point early in the book when parents Marilyn and David announce to their family that they’re separating, is a good example:
“Dad and I need to tell you something.”
Everyone looks up.
“We have some news you need to know.”
“Marilyn,” David says sharply. “You said we were going to wait.”
They were going to wait, but she can’t do it. She can’t do anything but sit here and stare at her family, even as she knows she must talk.
Outside, in the distance, a siren blares. From upstairs comes the sound of a grandson coughing. “Dad and I are separating,” she blurts out.
“You’re what?” says Lily.
“We’re splitting up,” she says. “I’m leaving Daddy.”
For several seconds there’s pure silence.
“Are you kidding me?” Clarissa says.
David says, “Do you think we’d joke about something like this?”
Meanwhile, Marilyn is trying to explain things, though she can’t explain them, even to herself. She won’t say those words, that she doesn’t love him anymore, because that’s not true. “We lost our son,” she says. “It ruined us.”
Again there’s silence, and Marilyn can’t stand it because the quiet is worse than anything else. But her daughters just sit there, punch-drunk and mute, and David does too.
Second, the scenes. Henkin found this way write the story in a way that allowed strange characters to spend time together, giving different perspectives on the family. It also shows the way that families, particularly marriages, can bring together people who might otherwise not meet. One of my favorite odd pairings was a scene where one of Leo’s sisters, Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew and Thisbe, Leo’s widow and a graduate student from California, decide to go rollerblading together. It’s a beautifully written scene, but also strange and sad and lovely.
Certainly, not every character is going to feel fully fleshed out when there are so many to contend with. In particular, it seems like the children in the story get the short end of the stick — they’re mostly props for their parents — but that may not really be a bad thing. The meat of the story is about Leo’s siblings and parents and their history together. Curiously, Leo remains a bit mysterious too, since we as readers really only get to know him through the memories of his family.
In some ways, The World Without You is a deceptive book. What could be a melodramatic premise — a reunion to honor a son killed in Iraq — ends up being the perfect space to explore a much larger story about family and the relationships that develop with the people we are supposed to be closest with.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!