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The World Without You: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – April 9, 2013
The Valley (The Valley Trilogy)
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Featured Guest Review: Hannah Tinti
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.
“Insightful. . . . Poignant. . . . Elegant.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A wonderful novel. . . . I just love it.”
—Anne Lamott, The Miami Herald
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“A keenly observed and compassionate novel. . . . Tenderness spills from these pages.”
“[A] densely detailed and touching portrait.”
“[Henkin] grounds his novel in both time and place, creating a living, breathing world. . . . Gorgeously written.”
—The Boston Globe
“Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.”
“Intimate and insightful. . . . Reminds us that families are icebergs, with nine-tenths of their emotions just below the surface, capable of wreaking havoc when struck.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Witty, poignant, and heartfelt.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“In the course of [a] long weekend, old and new tensions . . . bubble to the surface. It could be the plot of a Chekhov play or a Woody Allen movie. But on this classic narrative scaffolding, Joshua Henkin develops a painfully contemporary situation. . . . The skill with which Henkin explores the points of view and personae of his ensemble cast is masterful.”
“Henkin is a writer of voluminous heart, humanity, and talent.”
—Julia Glass, author of The Widower’s Tale
“Masterful . . . . Here are Tanglewood concerts overheard, fireflies, skinny-dipping, an intense tennis game, fireworks, jalapeno-lime corn on the cob and white gazpacho. Henkin gets all the details just right. Think ‘The Big Chill,’ family style.”
—The New York Jewish Week
“Pleasingly old-fashioned. . . . [A] warm-hearted novel.”
—The Washington Post
“A triumph and an important novel about America.”
—Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
“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. . . . 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.”
“An immeasurably moving masterpiece.”
—Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers
“Henkin takes no sides in his novel. He simply presents his characters as they are, as they think, as they feel, how they interact and lets it all reveal whatever it may. . . . A novel for mature readers—those who like fiction providing insight into how people actually live.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[Resembles] Richard Ford’s luminescent novel The Sportswriter. . . . Wonderful. . . . Powerful.”
“The American family in crisis has long represented rich source material for writers, from Hawthorne to Morrison. In his deeply felt new novel, Joshua Henkin offers his contemporary contribution. . . . [Characters] leap uncensored off the page as powerful and fully realized human beings, rather than types. . . . Heartfelt.”
—The Miami Herald
“Marvelous on the solitudes that exist even within the strongest and most compassionate of families.”
—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad
“Gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. . . . Compassionate and beguiling.”
“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.”
Top Customer Reviews
The Frankel family, including the parents, David and Marilyn and their three daughters Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle, will be memorializing the death of their beloved son and brother, Leo, one year after his tragic demise. They each descend upon the site of so many previous family gatherings, knowing full well that the memories from the past will accompany them as they take this journey without their fallen son and brother.
As the family gathers, bringing them all from their respective homes and lives, the reader learns a bit about each of them and what issues and struggles define them; we also discover how the loss of Leo redefines who they are in relation to one another and how their lives now look in his absence. Clarissa and her husband are struggling with fertility issues; Lily has asked her partner not to come, so she can vent her anger and just be who she is; and Noelle, who has been living in Israel with her husband and four children and practicing Orthodox Judaism, has some uncertainties of her own.
Also joining them is Thisbet, Leo's widow, and their son Calder. Always feeling a bit like an outsider, Thisbet's journey from California brings with it a residue of these emotions, along with a secret she plans to share.
What will happen to each of them now that they have to go on without Leo? Will the siblings somehow reunite and grow close again, forgetting about the things that have divided them over the years? Or will they forever be changed, and not for the better?
A journalist, Leo's capture and killing in Iraq has also brought up strong feelings about the political aspects of the war for several family members.
The characters sprang to life on the pages for me, and my emotions about them felt like those I would have for real people, including the irritations that are part of normal interactions. I found Noelle and her spouse quite self-righteous and annoying, but as time passed, I came to see their pain and vulnerabilities. Lily's anger softened as she shared some of her feelings.
But the onslaught of feelings, along with a few secrets, unleashed during the sojourn at the summer cottage, begins to change how each of them sees one another and how they now see the future.
The World Without You: A Novel lost a bit of momentum for me in the mid-section, resulting in some difficulty in continuing to connect with the story; however, toward the end, I was once again fully engaged and enjoying the characters and their lives. Four stars.
The story revolves around three sisters,all with differing personalities that one wonders if they really are related--one is trying to conceive, another has become an Orthodox Jew living in Israel with four young sons and a somewhat abusive husband, and another seems to have a happy relationship. Add to this, their parents who are planning a divorce after years of marriage,a dead son whose memorial service all are attending a year after his death, his "grieving" widow and their young child and you have the makings of a fine story. But, the author, instead of allowing the reader to "feel" the emotions of the various characters, "tells" in minute detail what they are feeling. This led to my thinking "is the end soon?" Sorry, but I can't recommend this book.
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.