The World Without You, the new novel by New York-based writer Joshua Henkin, opens with a big event. After 42 years of marriage and four children, upper-middle class New York couple Marilyn and David Frankel are separating. The separation will occur soon after the memorial for their son Leo, a journalist who was killed in Iraq one year previous. Marilyn hasn’t been able to get over Leo’s death, “Sometimes she feels like she could die, that she’d like to die, it would be better that way,” Henkin writes in the prologue. While her husband drowns his sorrows in running, reading and classes on the proper way to cut vegetables, Marilyn channels her energy into writing anti-war op-eds with the fervor of someone fruitlessly trying to bring back the dead. But before the separation, the couple will host their three surviving children, plus various grandchildren and spouses, and their daughter-in law (Leo’s wife) Thisbe who brings their three year-old grandchild Calder, at the family’s vacation home in the Berkshires. The family is getting together, possibly for the last time as a unit, for Leo’s one-year memorial, which happens to fall on 4th of July. It’s an occasion that most of them approach with dread, especially Thisbe, who has a new boyfriend in Berkeley, and doesn’t know how to break the news to her in-laws.
In a review on The Rumpus, Bezalel Stern called the novel, “that rare breed: the twenty-first century domestic novel,” which is exactly right. By digging into the inner lives of all three daughters: the tempestous Noelle, now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel with her headstrong husband and four children, Clarissa—the eldest—whose life, at 39, has become consumed with trying to conceive a baby, and Lily, the middle daughter with unresolved anger issues towards just about everyone. The combination of characters is like a pressure keg about to burst with the combustible combination of family resentment and love; It’s a tightrope act performed amongst the land mines brought about by the death of a beloved youngest child and brother. The character’s are drawn with fine detail and empathy, and even the generally unlikable Noelle has her moments, enough to where I didn’t end up hating her even when I wanted to. Just like in life, everything’s complicated by the messy, complex, reality of being a human in a world where true human psychological binaries are nothing but a myth.
Joshua Henkin reads from The World Without You on Friday, July 13 at Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 1pm. Free. 415. 927.0960.