Customer Review

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fireworks and family, June 27, 2012
This review is from: The World Without You: A Novel (Hardcover)
In the Berkshires, during an enervating July Fourth weekend, three generations of Frankels gather together in 2005 for a memorial to their beloved son, brother, and spouse, Leo Frankel, a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in the Iraq War the previous year. As memories of Leo float through the narrative, old resentments and new secrets float to the top like crude oil in a jar of hearts. Henkin didn't break any new contextual ground here. He was going for the familiar themes of loss, perseverance, understanding, love despite all, forgiveness, and redemption within a garden-variety package tied up with some stock twine.

You've seen this family before in domestic dramas: the 21st century elite, pedigreed, liberal, secular family with a few black sheep conservatives. Just about all the Ivy League or first tier colleges are represented, and those who didn't obtain their PhDs or MDs are smarter than the ones who did.

One of the three beautiful daughters, Noelle, seems overtly fabricated. Henkin is trying to convince the reader that Noelle was once a sex-obsessed alley cat who moved to Israel and, par to the characteristic flip side of the personal coin, became an Orthodox Jew, with the support of her American husband, also turned Orthodox Jewish. A portrayal of two extremes in one person is not an unusual profile, and in fact is a prevalent human composition.

However, I was not convinced that first-incarnation Noelle was anything but a free spirit--refreshing and curious, independent and phase-healthy. Her morphing into a compulsive Orthodox, adhering so rigidly that they even bring their own Kosher food from Israel to this weekend, rejecting the Kosher food offered by her parents, was patently unbelievable. Henkin was attempting to show a woman who, at different times, embraced opposite ends of the same continuum. But, I never felt he authenticated second-incarnation Noelle with the antecedent, obsessive traits required to appropriate her inflexible, almost morbid religiosity.

Leo's parents, Marilyn and David, age 69, plan to announce their impending divorce to the clan. The author was demonstrating the statistically frequent rate of divorce that occurs between couples that have lost a child. But, Leo was not a child--he had a wife and child of his own. And, the elders' breakup seemed contrived; it wasn't convincingly organic, but rather a limply constructed story device.

There were other scenes and events that felt hatched rather than natural. It had the mainstream moue of a nighttime series, a repackaged but prosaic, recycled SISTERS BROTHERS-type entertainment.

Henkin has a way with words--the figurative and aphoristic turn of phrase. These delightful nuggets peppered the story throughout, and provided a prose-rich sum of parts. However, the story itself remained rather bland and predictable. The memorial service, which was the intended highlight of the gathering, was anti-climactic, buttressed largely by the individual tributes. The sentiments weren't enough to depict the event, except sketchily, and gave the special day a static representation.

The novel, while eloquent at intervals, did not consummately satisfy. Instead, the conventional arc was held together with chiefly reductive portraits and some pithy dialogue. A bit banal, with reflective moments. 3.25

Thank you to Net Galley for providing me an e-copy.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 22, 2012 9:59:26 AM PDT
Vic says:
I read the book, fetched from the new books section of my library, and I also read the two most helpful reviews (this one and a 4*). I tend to agree, at least to a large extent, with both reviewers. Bottom line: there is definite shading between this reviewer's 3.25 and other reviewer's 4.0 - it is a matter of point-of-view.

One point of argument I would like to make with the author of this review - as a Jewish insider, I've seen the attitude and behavior of Noelle with respect to the "not kosher enough" effect. Noelle acted to an extreme, and I tend to think of it as an adult's version of a child's tantrum. Kosher isn't a binary concept, and Noelle turned up the Kosher volume to strike out at her mother and everyone at the dinner. As we saw, her definition of Kosher is more nuanced and flexible.

What I didn't buy was Henken's description of Noelle's behavior prior to her "born again" transformation to an Orthodox Jew. I shrugged it off to a literary construct.

I think this is actually a good review, but it is perhaps more negative than I would have done. To some degree, it is a matter of taste. I enjoyed the story, and I have met these people before. In fact, to some small degree, they are members of my extended family.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 22, 2012 5:02:18 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 22, 2012 5:02:59 PM PDT
Thank you, Vic. I, too am Jewish. (secular now).But my dad's side was Orthodox (from NY) and my mom's side reform (from West Pam Beach). I do see a lot in this book that was relatable. We weren't kosher (my parents decided not to) but my aunt's family played the "kosher at home, but not dining out" way. Hey, living in Massachusetts--everyone wanted lobster when dining out!

I do see what you mean--and, she could have done it to tantrum in her adult way. I didn't see it that way when I read it (since she seemed to be so rigidly ultra-kosher by choice), but I understand your POV. I did enjoy the writing, but there were flaws that bugged me, too.

Thank you for sharing your views. You sound like a very astute and compassionate reader.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 22, 2012 5:26:10 PM PDT
Vic says:
Thank you for the nice reply. Vic
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