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The World Without You: A Novel [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Joshua Henkin
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (161 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Featured Guest Review: Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti is the author of Animal Crackers and The Good Thief, winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

Joshua Henkin is an expert at capturing the complicated dynamics and intricate nuances of family relationships, examining the bonds that bind and fray between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, as well as parents and children—first in his novels Swimming Across the Hudson and Matrimony, and now with The World Without You.

Set in 2005, over the Fourth of July holiday, The World Without You follows the Frankel family as they gather at their summer home in the Berkshires to memorialize Leo, their youngest son, who was killed while working as a journalist in Iraq (in a situation reminiscent of Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder in Pakistan). One year after Leo’s death, his wife is taking the first steps towards a new relationship, his parents Marilyn and David are on the brink of divorce, and his sisters are struggling too: Clarissa with infertility, Noelle (a born-again Orthodox Jew) with her identity, and Lily with the anger she is carrying over the loss of her brother. As the Frankel family takes their first, tentative steps out of mourning, each tries to find a new place in a world, while understanding that Leo’s death has changed them, and their family, forever.

The World Without You asks important questions: how do we move on after losing someone we love? And how do we love again? Joshua Henkin, that giving-tree of a writer, skillfully leads us through the ups and downs of his characters’ emotional worlds, understanding that moments of kindness can refill us with hope, and that family is a bond that can weather any storm.


Review

“Henkin is the master of the post-modern domestic novel. . . . [The World Without You] is a novel of brilliant insinuation, portraying the complex interiors of its characters and the worlds they inhabit. . . . [Henkin] has reinvented the domestic novel and in the process crated a work that gives coherent voice to the cacophony in the hearts and minds of a family torn by grief and divided over their Judaism.”
The Jerusalem Report

“Insightful. . . . Poignant. . . . [Henkin]move[s] elegantly from one perspective to another. . . . Although the cast is large, you get to know them deeply, like real people. . . . Henkin brings them to a moving resolution that feels authentically possible. . . . The World Without You shows how loss forces people to reconceive of themselves, a painful but necessary transformation.”
 —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Pleasingly old-fashioned. . . . Henkin never lets [his] story turn into a debate about the war in Iraq or the merits of Orthodox Judaism. What interests him is the texture of everyday existence and the constantly shifting human relationships embedded in it: the slip of the tongue over a child’s name that stakes a grandmother’s claim, the collective solving of a crossword puzzle that infuriates a slower-witted in-law, a brutally competitive tennis match that unexpectedly reconfigures the family dynamic. Those who have resorted to such passive-aggressive tactics with their own relatives will laugh and wince in recognition at Henkin’s perfectly calibrated measurements of intramural jockeying. . . . [A] warm-hearted novel.”
—The Washington Post

“[I]t's damn difficult to make the basic unhappy-family novel distinctly one's own. Henkin does so with a one-two combination of strengths: psychological empathy for his realistic characters, and an expository modesty that draws attention away from the skilled writing itself . . . in order to focus, with great care, on the subtleties and complications of familial love. . . . Tenderness spills from these pages.”
Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
  
“Heart-searing, eye-tearing, and soul-touching”
Nina Sankovitch, The Huffington Post
 
“Blazingly alive. . . . [Henkin] grounds his novel in both time and place, creating a living, breathing world. . . . Gorgeously written, and as beautifully detailed as a tapestry, Henkin delicately probes what these family members really mean to one another. . . . [C]ompassionate, intelligent, and shining”
Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe

“A more bittersweet version of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You or a less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Henkin . . . tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] densely detailed and touching portrait”
—People Magazine

The World Without You gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. . . . [P]owerful and unexpected . . . compassionate and beguiling.”
Jane Ciabattari, NPR Books
 
“Point this one out to contemporary fiction fans of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, or the works of Rick Moody, Richard Russo, Philip Roth, and John Updike.”
—Library Journal
 
“Could be the plot of a Chekhov play or a Woody Allen movie. . . . [The book explores] with subtlety and feeling the meaning of family, both those we are born with and those we choose, those we leave behind and those with whom we soldier on.”
Marion Winik, Newsday
 
“Pleasingly old-fashioned. . . . [A] warm-hearted novel.”
Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
 
“[A] moving novel.”
Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
 
“[D]eeply felt . . . striking . . . vivid. . . . [T]he novel is permeated with small moments of restored intimacy. There’s a lot of tender feeling here for the American family, on the ropes for sure, but well worth fighting for, Henkin’s heartfelt novel insists.”
Andrew Furman, The Miami Herald
 
“The members of the Frankel family seem unhappy enough, in their own individual ways, but it also seems as if happiness has never really been an option for them, as if it were an item that had somehow been left off the menu of life. . . . [The] little details, in fact, the bits and pieces of choice and circumstance, fortune and misfortune, that make up the mosaic of each individual's life, is what this subtle and ingenious novel is about. . . . [A] novel for mature readers — those who like fiction providing insight into how people actually live.”
Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“[I]ntimate and insightful. . . . In The World Without You, Henkin . . . reminds us that families are icebergs, with nine-tenths of their emotions just below the surface, capable of wreaking havoc when struck.”
Glenn C. Altschuler, San Francisco Chronicle
  
“Henkin juggles [his] large cast of characters with ease, telling a poignant story while maintaining each unique identity. This is no small trick, as the characters are neither perfect nor perfectly unlikeable. They are, in the end, a family. They do what families do, which is a complex dance of happy and sad, of distance and intimacy.”
Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
 
“[A] poignant and moving novel. . . . Henkin is a polished writer with an eye for detail . . . but where he really shines is in how he tenderly reveals each character’s complex personality, layer by layer. . . . [A] moving story and a good read, and, from start to finish, deeply honest.”
Abigail Pickus, The Times of Israel
 
“Henkin is a master at letting his characters emerge in subtle but captivating ways. . . . [A] deeply woven and affecting novel about grief.”
Wingate Packard, The Seattle Times
 
“In 2005, if a novelist had published a book that hinged on the murder of a Jewish American journalist by Islamic terrorists in Iraq, it would have been read as a political novel, a war novel, a post-9/11 novel—and, of course, a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl, who died in 2002 in Pakistan. Seven years later, Joshua Henkin has published just such a book in The World Without You, which is set in 2005 on the anniversary of the murder of Leo Frankel, whose story closely mirrors Pearl’s. . . . Yet the passage of time has made it possible for Henkin to turn this headline-news premise into a book that is quiet, inward-turning, and largely apolitical. . . . Henkin is a novelist of distinguished gifts.”
Adam Kirsch, Tablet
 
“Henkin inhabits each character with ease and vibrancy.”
—New York Daily News
 
“Henkin's prose is as smooth and clear as a morning lake. You want to dip back in for the specificity of detail and feelings evoked. . . . The World Without Youis a study of close relationships, typified by warmth and wit. The characters are sympathetic and flawed, drawn with compassionate strokes. . . . [T]he narrative builds tiers of tension that break unexpectedly into dramatic action, like blocks in a Jenga tower.”
Jackie Reitzes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Moving”
—Oprah Magazine
 
“Henkin has achieved something uncommon with The World Without You: a 21st-century novel that deals with contemporary politics in a sensitive and dignified way without being cynical, bombastic or melodramatic. . . . Its backdrop is current, but its focus − the bonds and rifts that make family life meaningful − is timeless.”
Shana Rosenblatt Mauer, English-Language Haaretz
 
“Compelling and insightful”
—Readers Digest
 
“Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.”
—Commentary Magazine
 
“Deeply human.”
—More Magazine
 
The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s new book, is that rare breed: the twenty-first century domestic novel. . . . Powerful.”
—The Rumpus
 
“An immeasurably moving masterpiece”
—Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers
 
“I can't imagine a world without Joshua Henkin.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
 
“This book is a triumph and an important novel about America.”
—Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
 
“Henkin is a writer of voluminous heart, humanity, and talent.”
—Julia Glass, author of The Widower's Tale
 
“Marvelous on the solitudes that exist even within the strongest and most compassionate of families.”
—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That's Bad

About the Author

JOSHUA HENKIN is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. He directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Prologue
 
Here,” she says, “I’ll get you a sweater.” She’s barely done speaking before she’s taking the stairs two at a time, her espadrilles clomping against the peeling wood, transporting her down the long hallway. It’s July and twilight comes late, so even now, at nine o’clock, the last of the sun still colors the sky, but inside the house the corridors are dark and she’s neglected to illuminate the antique standing lamp at the top of the stairs as if to reflect an inner austerity. It’s their country house, but like their apartment in the city the hallway runs through it, an endless spine, which she traverses now, past the Kathe Kollwitz etchings and the street map of Paris and the photographs of her and David’s grandparents staring down at them on opposite sides of the wall from another continent and century. She moves with such purpose (dogged, implacable: those are the words David uses to describe her) that when she reaches the lip of their bedroom and steps inside she’s startled to discover she’s forgotten what she came for.
 
She calls out to him, but he doesn’t respond.
 
“Are you there?”
 
There’s silence.
 
“David?” She’ll turn seventy next spring, and David will, too (They were born a week apart. They’ve figured it out: she was emerging from the womb at the very hour he was circumcised, the first and last Jewish ritual he ever partook of, which places him, she thinks, one Jewish ritual ahead of her.), and she’s taken to saying her memory has begun to fail her, though she knows that’s not true. Or no more true than for any sixty-nine-year-old—or for any adult human, for that matter. To have the memory of an infant, a toddler. She recalls Clarissa at ten months, those first stabs at language, how she resolved right then to teach her daughter French and German, to do it while it was still possible. She felt the same with Lily and Noelle, and again a few years later when Leo was born. She spent her junior year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and David spent his junior year in Düsseldorf. Her French was rusty by the time the children were born, and David’s German was rusty, too, but it was worth a try, wasn’t it, she said, and she still had her Berlitz tapes. And David, who in those days was still inclined to indulge her, allowed her to convince him to embark on a summer experiment; she would speak French to Clarissa and he would speak German. Two junior years abroad between them, one set of Berlitz tapes: the experiment lasted a week, the two of them speaking to baby Clarissa in their bad French and bad German until it became obvious to Marilyn what should have been obvious to her all along, that their daughter wasn’t going to be trilingual; she was going to be mute, a wolf-child.
 
She remembers now. A sweater. She stands in front of their old closet, and there they are: David’s shirts pressed and starched and evenly spaced, the shoes lined up in pairs, the sweaters folded in piles, next to them hanging a single brown cardigan. For a second she feels like a voyeur, looking in on a life that’s no longer hers, and as she reaches out to grab the cardigan her hand shakes.
 
She heads back downstairs, and when she reaches the landing she calls out again, but he still doesn’t respond. For an instant she panics: has he run off?
 
“I was calling you,” she says. “Didn’t you hear me?”
 
“I guess not.” David is out on the porch, reading the Times, reclined on one of their old lawn chairs. His legs stick out in front of him; he taps his feet against the edge of the chair.
 
“I got you this.” She hands him the cardigan, which he takes obediently, but now he’s just laid it folded across his lap.
 
“You said you were cold.”
 
“Did I?” His gaze is far off, tunneling past her.
 
He looks pale, she thinks. He’s wearing a red button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he inhabits it so loosely that it billows around him like a pastry puff. He looks as if he’s lost weight. He has lost weight. So has she. They haven’t eaten much, either of them, this past year.
 
A mosquito lands on his neck. She swats at it, and he flinches. “A bug,” she says.
 
He nods.
 
A firefly alights on one of her tulips, and another one, casting the garden in a sputter of light. “The girls will be arriving soon.”
 
“Not for another twenty-four hours.”
 
“That’s soon enough.”
 
Another mosquito lands on him.
 
“The bugs love you,” she says. “Remember how we used to say that to the kids? Mornings before summer camp and we were coating them in Calamine? The mosquitoes loved Leo most of all.”
 
She knows what he’s thinking. That memory is selective, even in small matters like this one. But it’s true, she thinks. Leo was the most bit-up of the kids. The bugs found him the sweetest, as did she.
 
He rises from his chair. “I need to get a haircut.”
 
“David, it’s nine o’clock at night.”
 
“I mean tomorrow,” he says, all impatience. “I’ll go into town before the girls arrive.” He checks his reflection in the porch window. He’s patting down his hair, straightening out his shirt collar as if he has somewhere to go.
 
“You look good,” she says. “Handsome.” He still has a full head of hair, though it’s grown silver over the years. When, she wonders, did this happen? It’s taken place so slowly she hasn’t noticed it at all.
 
She’s sitting in a lawn chair, and she turns away from him. It’s been a year since Leo died, and on the teak garden table, pressed beneath a mound of books, sits a pile of programs for the memorial. There will be a service at the Lenox Community Center; then they’ll go to the cemetery for the unveiling.
 
“You changed into tennis shorts,” he says.
 
“I was thinking of hitting some balls.”
 
“Now?”
 
“The court is lit.”
 
He shrugs, then goes back to the Times. He skims the editorial page, the letters, and now he’s on to the arts. He folds the paper like origami, over and over on itself.
 
She steps off the porch and disappears into the garden. She continues along the stone path, which winds past the bushes to where their tennis court lies. The garage is next to it, and as she steps inside and flips on the court lights, the clays gets flooded in a pond of illumination.
 
She stands at the baseline with a bucket of balls, another bucket waiting in the garage behind her. She’s in her shorts and an indigo tank top, her sneakers laced tightly, her hair tied back, though a few strands have come loose in the nighttime heat. She breathes slowly, in and out. She hits serve after serve into the empty opponent’s court, taking something off the second serve, putting more spin on it, then returning to her first serve, hitting one ace after another. She serves into the deuce court and the ad court and the deuce court again. She empties one bucket of balls, and now she returns with the other bucket. Occasionally when she serves, her ball hits another ball lying on the clay, and they bounce off each other. There are a hundred and fifty tennis balls now, maybe two hundred, the court covered in fuzz the color of lime. Sweat drips down her forehead and singes her eyes. She simply leaves the balls lying there and returns to the house.
 
“Did you get it out of your system?”
 
She doesn’t respond.
 
“So this is it,” he says.
 
It is. After forty-two years of marriage, she’s leaving him. At least that’s how David puts it—how he will put it, no doubt, when they tell the girls. And it’s true in a way: she was the one who finally decided she couldn’t go on like this. A week ago she asked him for a trial separation. She hates that term. As if she’s standing in front of a judge and lawyers, a jury of her peers. When she made her announcement, David said he wanted to give it another shot, but they’ve been giving it shot after shot for a year now and she has no more left in her. There are days when they don’t talk at all. She has reminded him of the statistics, what happens to a marriage when you lose a child. Eighty percent, she’s heard, maybe even ninety. Why should this surprise people? Already it’s 50 percent when nothing obvious has gone wrong. But David doesn’t want to hear statistics, and, truth be told, neither does she.
 
Another copy of the program lies forlornly on the porch. They’re everywhere, it seems, strewn randomly about the house. She picks one up from the steps. Leo’s photograph is across the cover, his curls corkscrewing out just like David’s, and beneath the photo are the words APRIL 10, 1972–JULY 4, 2004. At the bottom of the page is a poem by William Butler Yeats.
 
When she told David of her plans, he wanted to call the girls immediately. He wanted to call Thisbe too. It seemed only fair, he said; Thisbe and Calder would be flying in from California. But she refused to let him call. She wanted to tell everyone in person, and to wait until after the memorial was over. But the real reason—she has only half admitted this, even to herself—is that she fears if David told the girls no one would come. It would serve them right, David says; she half suspects he wants to cancel himself. How can they have the memorial, David wants to know, when this is ha...

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