Joshua Henkin ably illustrates the complexity of family ties in his latest novel, The World Without You.The bucolic, picturesque haven of the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts, is the setting for the tale of the Frankels, an upper-middle-class family torn apart by the violent death of an only son. Gathering for the one-year-anniversary memorial over the July 4th holiday weekend, the Frankels are each dealing in their own way with the death of Leo—a journalist with a daredevil streak—in Iraq in July of 2004.
Henkin delves deep into the psyches of each character, from the matriarch, Marilyn, who is considering shattering the family even further, to the three surviving siblings—sisters Clarissa (a type-A overachiever dealing with the inability to conceive), Lily (a fiery lawyer) and Noelle (the black sheep). He also gives voice to Leo’s widow, Thisbe, who comes to the reunion with their young son—and a secret.The point of view changes between these characters from chapter to chapter, weaving between the past and the present; it is notable that Henkin is so well able to voice the female characters (the patriarch, David, and the other male characters are portrayed in large part through the eyes of the women).
It’s also worth noting that Henkin does not attempt to make these characters particularly likable. They are relatable, yes, but that is because they are so flawed. So in each character, you very well might recognize that older sister you are jealous of, or the sometimes-overbearing mother who causes you to revert to adolescent behavior. As a reader, you may feel for these people, but you may not want to hang out with them for very long in real life.
Of the sisters, Noelle—the youngest—is the one this reviewer would least like to spend time with in the real world. The family misfit, she has traveled from Israel with her Orthodox husband and three young sons, kosher food and plates in tow.A trip to her past reveals a troubled, promiscuous teen who turns to Judaism as a way to distinguish herself from her overachieving siblings and mother (an accomplished doctor). Yes, the bratty younger sibling is recognizable—and suitably insufferable.
Ultimately, Henkin’s book is a realistic and absorbing portrayal of grief and our reactions to it—from the numb to the furious to the sometimes narcissistic. You may not want to live with the Frankels, but you won’t be able to stop reading about them.