World Without You (Henkin)

The World Without You
Joshua Henkin, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375424366

Winner, 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award

From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Matrimony, a moving, mesmerizing new novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy.

It’s July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday. The family has gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings, an intrepid journalist and adventurer who was killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq.

The parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief. Their forty-year marriage is falling apart. Clarissa, the eldest sibling and a former cello prodigy, has settled into an ambivalent domesticity and is struggling at age thirty-nine to become pregnant. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer and the family contrarian, is angry at everyone. And Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew.

The last person to see Leo alive, Noelle has flown back for the memorial with her husband and four children, but she feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe —Leo’s widow and mother of their three-year-old son—has come from California bearing her own secret.

Set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War, The World Without You is a novel about sibling rivalries and marital feuds, about volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, about the true meaning of family. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 7, 1964
Where—New York City
Education—B.A., Harvard; M.F.A., University of Michigan
Awards—James Fellowship for the Novel; Hopwood Award,
   PEN Syndicated Fiction Award; Edward Lewis Wallant Award.
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York

Joshua Henkin is the author of Swimming Across the Hudson (1997), which was selected by the Los Angeles Times as a notable book of the year; Matrimony (2007), a New York Times Nobtable Book of the Year; and The World Without You (2012), which has received wide critical acclaim. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many journals and newspapers. He has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the 92nd St. Y in New York City, and curently directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. (From the publisher.)

His fiction has been performed at Symphony Space and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts; published in Spanish translation in Habra Una Vez, an anthology of young North American Writers; anthologized in 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11; and cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories. He is the recipient of the James Fellowship for the Novel, the Hopwood Award, the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and a grant from the Michigan Council of the Arts. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. (From the author's website.)

Joshua Henkin also wrote a terrific essay about book clubs that received a lot of attention in the blogosphere. It's worth reading.

Book Reviews
Grief can be a divisive force, especially within families. Sorrow can’t ­really be shared, as Joshua Henkin illustrates in his insightful third novel, The World Without You. The book opens a year after the death of Leo Frankel, a ­Daniel Pearl-like journalist killed on assignment in Iraq, as his family gathers at their summer home in the Berkshires for a memorial.... The World Without You definitely favors character over plot. The most dramatic event, Leo’s death, has already happened.... Henkin rotates through his cast, moving elegantly from one perspective to another and providing ample background to illuminate the tensions each person feels in the present. The World Without You shows how loss forces people to reconceive of themselves, a painful but necessary ­transformation.
New York Times Book Review

It'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 order to focus, with great care, on the subtleties and complications of familial love.... Tenderness spills from these pages.
Lisa Schwarzbaum - Entertainment Weekly

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 Leavit - Boston Globe

A densely detailed and touching portrait.

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

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 - Washington Post

Deeply 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 - 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 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Intimate 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 - 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 - 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 - Seattle Times

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 You is 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

(Starred review.) 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

The Frankel family has gathered at their summer home in the Berkshires to attend a memorial service for their youngest sibling, Leo, who was killed while reporting in Iraq. Parents Marilyn and David are struggling with their 40-year marriage while three daughters wrestle with infertility, unemployment, urban ennui, and assorted relationship tensions. Leo's widow, Thisbe, and young son Calder fly in from California with news of their own. For the few days surrounding July 4, 2005, the family members struggle with their shared pasts, uncertain futures, and each other. Verdict: Henkin (director of Brooklyn College's MFA program in fiction writing, Matrimony; Swimming Across the Hudson) might gain some new readers with this honest and well-paced look at an American family. 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.—Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast
Library Journal

A family melodrama that encompasses both tragedy and farce, as an upper-middle-class clan gathers to mourn a dead son and perhaps move on. When conventionalists claim, "They don't write novels like that anymore," this is the sort of novel they mean.... Which relationships will endure, which will collapse, and which will change over the course of a long weekend? A novel that satisfies all expectations in some very familiar ways.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the sibling relationships in the novel. To what extent have Noelle’s decisions been shaped by being Clarissa and Lily’s sister?

2. When Marilyn announces that she and David are separating, Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle are thrown into shock. Is separation/divorce different for children when they’re adults than when they’re younger?

3. Marilyn won’t let David tell the girls their news before everyone gets up to the Berkshires. Do you agree with this decision not to tell the family in advance?

4. “It’s been the hardest year of Thisbe’s life, yet it’s different for her. Marilyn and David were Leo’s parents.” What does the novel mean by this?  In what ways is it different to lose a son than to lose a husband?

5. Marilyn thinks, “Mothers and daughters-in-law:  such volatile, loaded relationships.” Is there something about Marilyn and Thisbe that makes it hard for them to be close?  Is the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law inherently volatile?

6. Clarissa’s infertility plays a central role in the book. Originally, it was Nathaniel who wanted to have children and Clarissa didn’t, but now that they’re having trouble conceiving Clarissa seems more upset than Nathaniel is. Does this have to do with Leo’s death? Is infertility always harder for the woman than for the man?

7. Lily and Noelle have a particularly difficult relationship.  Why is this?  How do sibling relationships change as people get older? Are some siblings simply not meant to get along?

8. Marilyn and David bought kosher food and a new set of dishes so Noelle could eat in their home, but Noelle still won’t eat there. Do you agree with Noelle’s decision? In a conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to one’s beliefs, what should win out?

9. There are some very high-powered people in this novel. Nathaniel has two PhDs and may someday win the Nobel Prize. Lily clerked on the Supreme Court.  Malcolm is a chef featured in magazines.  Marilyn is a successful doctor.  Amram and Noelle, by contrast, struggle professionally. To what extent do the characters in this book define their own success in comparison with the success of their siblings and parents?

10. Thisbe says to Lily, “Everyone who knew us says Leo and I were great together. There’s no love like the love that’s been erased.” Were Leo and Thisbe great together? How reliable is memory when someone has died? Do you think Thisbe and Leo would have worked things out if he had come home from Iraq?

11. Most of the major characters in the novel are female, yet the author is male. Does that influence the way you read this novel? Is it different for a male writer to write from the perspective of a woman?

12. Like the journalist Daniel Pearl, Leo was captured in the Middle East and executed by terrorists. More recently, a number of prominent journalists have died in the Middle East. The specter of the Iraq War hovers over this novel, and the book is populated by characters who have strong, often opposing political opinions.  Yet the book takes place in the bucolic Berkshires, far from the center of the conflict. Would you describe this as a political novel?

13. Although Lily and Malcolm aren’t married, they live together and have been a couple for ten years. Why does Lily refuse to let Malcolm come to the Berkshires for Leo’s memorial?  Does it say something about their relationship? About Lily herself?

14. Noelle thanks her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know.” What does she mean by that?  What makes David such a likable character?

15. Amram, by contrast, is a more difficult human being. What do you think attracted Noelle to him? What attracted Amram to Noelle?  The novel says that Thisbe “understands Amram’s appeal.  He has a kind of bullying charisma.” Do you find Amram likable?

16. “Judaism, Lily likes to say: just another installment in the random life of Noelle Glucksman.” Later, Noelle tells Thisbe that it was random that she ended up in Israel and that she could just as easily have landed in Sweden. What role do randomness and coincidence play in Noelle’s life? In the lives of the other characters?

17. Thisbe thinks: “Everyone wants to know about the milestones—Leo’s birthday, their anniversary—and those are hard, of course, but it’s the everyday things that are the toughest.” What does Thisbe mean by that?  Do you agree with her observation?

18. Gretchen’s wealth plays a role in this novel, and the family all responds to it differently. Discuss the role of money in the novel in general.

19. The book says that David “mourns for Leo no less than Marilyn does even if he isn’t bellowing it into bullhorns.... In a way he thinks his response is more dignified.”  Is David’s response more dignified? Are there better and worse ways to mourn?

20. When Amram finally returns after having been gone for two days, Noelle is livid. Later, she hits Amram in the eye with a tennis ball, and Amram accuses her of having done so intentionally. Do you think Noelle hit him intentionally?  Whom do you sympathize with in this scene?

21. At the book’s end, where do you think the various characters will be in ten years?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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