It's July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. They have gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings and an intrepid journalist killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq. But Leo’s parents are adrift in a grief that’s tearing apart their forty-year marriage, his sisters are struggling with their own difficulties, and his widow has arrived from California bearing a secret. Here award-winning writer Joshua Henkin unfolds this family story, as, over the course of three days, the Frankels contend with sibling rivalries and marital feuds, with volatile women and silent men — and, ultimately, with the true meaning of family.
About the Author
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book and The World Without You, winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a Finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
Read an Excerpt
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?”
“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.
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.”
“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 happening? But she disagrees. David thinks, How can they do this? and she thinks, How can they not?
Now, in the kitchen, she finds him on his hands and knees, taking a box cutter to four large packing boxes. He makes a single sharp motion down the center of each box. His back is to her; he looks as if he’s searching for contraband. “Do you need help?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer her.
The boxes are open now, gutted of their contents; a single Styrofoam peanut has flown out of the packing and skittered like a bug across the floor.
“The Williams Sonoma kosher special?”
He doesn’t respond.
“What’s the damage? A couple thousand dollars? More?”
David glances at the receipt, which is perched on the butcher-block table at the center of the room, lying in a bed of Styrofoam. “More or less.”
“Oh, well,” she says. “We can afford it.”
“You said you thought it was money well spent.”
The contents of the boxes (plates and bowls, cutlery, serving dishes, pans and pots, a few extras that David insisted on, including a set of bowls for the children with famous sports figures on them—they’re sports fiends, the grandchildren) have been purchased so that Noelle, Amram, and their four boys can eat in their house. Noelle won’t eat off nonkosher dishes, even if those dishes belong to her parents. Especially, Marilyn sometimes thinks, if those dishes belong to her parents. Noelle and Amram live in Jerusalem and they visit at most once a year, so the dishes won’t get much use. It’s one of the many reasons Marilyn has been loath to buy them. But David has been lobbying for them for years; he thinks of them as a peace offering.
“A plate for me, a plate for you?” She’s doing her best to make light of this.
He doesn’t respond.
“Noelle will still come visit,” she says. “Nothing has to change about that.” Nothing has to change about anything, she wants to say, but she knows that’s absurd.
She has found a rental on the Upper West Side, a two-bedroom in one of those all-services monstrosities, with a gym and a pool, a concierge, a playroom (it will be good for the grandchildren, she thinks), a party room, all the things she could want and a lot of things she couldn’t. It’s eleven blocks from David, which means they could run into each other grocery shopping, though in New York you can go for months without running into your own next-door neighbor. For a while, she thought it would be better to move to another neighborhood (she even considered moving to Brooklyn—Clarissa and Nathaniel live there, so she could be nearby), but except for those few years when the girls were in high school and the family decamped to Westchester, she has spent her whole adult life on the Upper West Side. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. And the apartment opened up suddenly and the lease is month to month, so it will be a good place to figure out what comes next. It’s the house in Lenox that makes her heart quicken. Will she be allowed to come back here? Will she allow herself? She and David have been coming to the Berkshires summer after summer for forty years now.
“You checked the food?”
David nods. “Everything’s certified kosher.”
“Are you sure?”
More Styrofoam peanuts are strewn across the floor, including one that has lodged itself under the fridge, which Marilyn stabs at with a fork. Now she’s standing with David amidst the wreckage, and beside it all sits the bubble wrap unfurled like a runner across the length of the room. “We bought a whole kitchen,” she says. “No spatula left unturned.”
David gives her a tired smile.
“Are we supposed to bless them?” she says darkly. “Is that what you do?”
“Christen them?” David says.
She laughs, as she knows she’s supposed to, and it feels good to laugh with David. For a moment there’s a lightness between them, as if a screen has been lifted.
When David finds her a few minutes later, she’s seated in the alcove that adjoins the living room, typing on the computer. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“What?” he says.
“There she goes again. Writing another op-ed about the war.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You could say you miss him.”
“Of course I miss him.”
“It’s been a year since he died, for God’s sake. And, yes, I know writing these things won’t bring him back, but I don’t care.” She doesn’t care, either, that she has become a mascot for the left and everyone thinks of her as the mother of the dead journalist. Because that’s what she is. It’s what David is, too: the father of the dead journalist. It’s all they’re ever going to be.
In the kitchen now, he prepares a citrus marinade for the chicken. He has chosen the menu: white gazpacho, caramelized leeks and endive, marinated chicken thighs, jalapeño-lime corn on the cob, pasta salad. They will also have watermelon slushies. At the moment, though, he’s chopping vegetables. The year before Leo died, when he retired after thirty-nine years of teaching high school English, David took a course consecrated to the very subject, five Sundays running at the 92nd Street Y. Slicing and Dicing 101, Marilyn called it; it was evidence, she believed, that he had too much time on his hands.
Though there’s certainly a technique, as he demonstrates now, the way he keeps his knife always on the cutting board, only his wrist moving. That’s all there is these days, just the sound of David when she comes home from work, cutting vegetables in their kitchen on Riverside Drive, the sound of him here too, in Lenox, her husband chopping vegetables. She thinks how hard it’s going to be, living on her own, how she has brought this on herself, the solitude, the silence, and now, when she’s alone, as if in preparation for what’s to come, she has begun to turn on the radio and she listens to music she doesn’t care for, just to hear a sound in the room.
The phone rings, but when she goes to answer it, the person has hung up. She has a brief, paranoid thought that someone is following her. A trickle of sweat makes its way down her spine. She opens the kitchen window, but it’s just as warm outside as it is in the house, so she closes the window again. Her heart still beats fast from hitting those tennis balls. She smacked one of the balls as hard as she could, clear over the fence and past the neighbor’s property. She did it for the fun of it, but it wasn’t fun. She feels the energy funnel out of her, wrung from her as if from a sponge. Sometimes she feels as if she could die, that she’d like to die; it would be better that way. “He used to walk around with his laces undone. Remember? It was like he was daring you to step on them.”
“What do you mean who?” Because in her life there is nobody else. And because for David there has been somebody else (there have been their girls; there have been his hobbies—he has taken up running and become devoted to opera; he stays up late poring over librettos—there has been this relentless chopping of vegetables), because he’s been trying to make the best of an unspeakable situation, she hasn’t been able to abide him. Is that why she’s leaving him? All she knows is she’s so very very tired. She looks at him once more and feels the rage burble inside her.
Onions, scallions, leeks, endive, cucumbers, jalapeño: he chops them all. It looks like a trash heap, like volcanic ash. Always the reasonable one. For years she counted on him to be like that. Now it assails her.
“Did you call your mother?” she asks.
“You didn’t tell her, did you?” That was their agreement—the agreement, at least, that she extracted from him. No one is to know until after the memorial.
“No,” he says sharply. “I didn’t.”
“Then what did you two talk about?”
“Nothing,” he says. “She’s a woman of few words, Marilyn.”
“So what were her few words?”
“She’s not coming.”
“Are you serious?” And she thinks: you told her not to come, didn’t you? Except, she realizes, she’s actually said those words.
“My mother’s been through a lot. Do you blame her for not wanting to go through it again? She’s ninety-four years old.”
“I know how old she is.”
“She’s ninety-four, and she’ll live to a hundred and forty. She has a stronger constitution than any of us.”
She’s washing the dishes now, going at them furiously, while David is still chopping behind her, the percussive sound of him. He presses down hard on a carrot, and the top comes flying off and sails across the room. “Jesus,” he says. “Fuck! I cut myself.”
“Is it bad?”
“Bad enough.” There’s a gash in his thumb. It looks shallow at first, but now, studying it beneath the sink light, Marilyn sees it’s deeper than she realized. She takes a wad of paper towel and presses it to his hand. But the blood seeps through, so she goes to the pantry to get more paper towel, and when she returns his hands are shaking.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” He sits down on the stool and she’s above him now, attending to him. She runs his hand under cold water. The blood drips off him and into the sink, down into the garbage disposal along with the vegetable peel and citrus rind, swirling around like beet juice. She comes back with tape and a gauze pad and bandages him up.
“Slicing and Dicing 101, huh? They should have flunked me out.”
She presses her hands around his, wrapping him in gauze, as if she’s taping up a fighter. “How am I doing, doctor?”
She forces out a smile. She’s an internist by training, but she did a second residency, in infectious disease. He has come to the wrong specialist. “You’re lucky you don’t need stitches.”
“Do I need them?”
“I think I staunched the flow.”
She guides him upstairs and into their old bedroom. She has him in their bathroom beneath the flickering lights, and David is saying, “We need to replace that bulb. And the mirror,” he adds. “It has a crack in it. Hairline fracture.”
But she’s focused only on the task at hand, urging him to remain still. She takes off the bandage, which is shot through with blood, and wraps his hand again.
You’re as good as new, she wants to say, but her breath catches on the words. They’re out of the bathroom, and now David, in his white gym socks, is sitting on their old bed; tentatively, she settles herself beside him. One of his socks has a hole in it, and his big toe pokes out, white as a marshmallow nub. Through the window, she can see the tennis court still dotted with balls, lumpy as dough in the moonlight. Clean up, clean up. The girls will be coming soon, and they might want to play. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m all right.”
“Time to hit the hay.”
She nods. At home in the city, they’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms, but this is the first time they’ve been back here, up in Lenox, alone together. It seems that David has claimed their old bedroom. Squatter’s rights. Though she, in fairness, is a squatter, too. She’s also, she understands, the bad guy here. David’s suitcase is on the floor at his feet; a shoe tree spills out of it, and a can of shaving cream.
“Good night,” she says.
He gives her a quick nod.
She turns softly on her heels and heads down the hall. When she comes back a few minutes later, David is already asleep. There he is, her husband, and she feels a momentary heartbreak, knowing she’s not supposed to be looking at him, that somehow she’s not entitled. But she continues to stand there, tears falling down her face. She’s back in their house in Larchmont, back in other houses and apartments, remembering hallways, portals, a domed ceiling high above the family dinner table, bedrooms whose configurations she can only dimly recall outside of which she used to stand at night quietly watching her children sleep—and later, listening to David breathe softly beside her, and she, a stealthy presence among the reposed, careful not to disturb the sleep of a loved one.
What People are Saying About This
“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.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s mesmerizing new novel.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was not sure if I should read this book or not because it very much reflects my own life. My son was also killed in Iraq in 2005. Our family (which consists of 3 daughters and another son) will simply never be the same - my husband and I have a relationship that mimics David's and Marilyn's. Shall I stay or shall I go? I highlighted so much of this book because so much of it rang true. I hit tennis balls with the same vengeance that Marilyn does - an exorcism of sorts, I suspect. I wrote letters, visited congressmen, spoke at anti-war events for the first couple of years... and then I just felt defeated. My husband works, at his job - but not with the same commitment that he once had. After all, Michael was supposed to take over the business. He is physically always in motion - fixing and CHOPPING, just like David. My girls run - for themselves and for Michael. I am quite amazed that Joshua Henkins could capture the emotions that he does in this novel - but I related to every page that he wrote.
Three years ago, our book club had an opportunity to chat with Joshua Henkin and discuss his book MATRIMONY. We had a great time chatting and discussing the book with him and also talking about writing in general. When Joshua Henkin contacted me to read and review his newest novel, I jumped at the chance. I was drawn into the family's different levels of dysfunction as well as their grief over the loss of their son and brother. But, what I wasn't drawn into was the overt liberal rhetoric throughout the novel. The Bush-Hate was so strong and blatant that it actually started to turn me off on the novel. It made me wonder if this was the author's way to get his political views out to the world. I understand there are people in our country who have strong opinions about the war and it was definitely feasible that the characters in this story would feel this way. But, it felt over the top at times. For those with a conservative view, it could be a turn-off. I tried to ignore the political talk and focus instead on the family dynamics and the characters individual stories. The level of grief each family member was feeling was very real for me and I felt their pain and hesitations with each other. Their stories were well written and developed and I felt a connection to each one. If you are looking for a story with a huge climax and page-turning drama, this won't be for you. But if you are looking for a relaxing family story for a lazy summer day, this would be a great choice.
Politics made me put this book down. It could have been good.......but l don't care about your political views as an author. I stopped going to concerts of some of my favorite groups for the same reason .
Vivid, well-drawn characters, but this book really drags. No fresh insights. Ultimately it's kind of boring.
I was determined to finish this book though I lost interest early on. During my last attempt I looked for the page number I was on and I was only on page 72 (not half through). I love to read and enjoy different type books. This was one of the few I just could not finish.
I DONT GET WHY PEOPLE HAVE TO WRITE THE WHOLE STORY IN A BOOK REVIEW!! YOUR SUPPOSED TO SAY IF U LIKE IT OR NOT.... NOT GIVE AWAY THE WHOLE STORY!!! STOP ALRRADY
I am at page 200. The Bush thing is so old and boring. The daughters are so yucky. The family involved are so tiresome after a few chapters. Gone Girl is my favorite so far. Maybe !eo offed himself so he wouldnt have to deal with his sisters.
An interesting read. The problem is, it doesn't really go anywhere. I was waiting for a big thing to happen, and it never really does, just falls flat. I also had a lot of trouble keeping track of two out of the three daughters, only one out of the three really made an impression and I totally knew her story.
Too lengthy and boring
Although there is really nothing too original about this plot it is done wonderfully and interestingly well. Meeting a year after their brother, son and husband has been killed in Iraq, the family holds a memorial service. All the old secrets, hostilities and resentments erupt as the family tries to navigate their way through their new (without Leo) family dynamics. As in all families things are remembered differently by various siblings and despite their now diverse backgrounds they must come to some acceptance. This is a novel showing what it truly means to be part of a family regardless of what is going on in ones own life. The grandmother Gretchen and her vast fortune is an interesting character as is the way the family members view her. All in all a good read.
Some books are all about plot, some are more character studies. Joshua Henkin's novel, The World Without You falls in the latter category.The Frankel family, father David and mother Marilyn, are preparing for the arrival of their three daughters, Lily, Clarissa and Noelle, along with their spouses and children, and their daughter-in-law Thisbe with her young son for a memorial service for their son Leo, a journalist murdered last year covering the Iraq War.The story revolves around how Leo's death has affected the family. Marilyn, a doctor, turned outward; she consistently wrote op-ed pieces for newspapers against the war and worked on John Kerry's presidential campaign. David turned inward, taking up running to deal with his loss.Marilyn decides that it is too painful to stay married to David and asks him for a divorce; he is devastated by the request. Marilyn intends to tell the family while they are visiting for the memorial, and they are completely blindsided by this announcement.Henkin makes this characters so real that reading this novel felt like I was eavesdropping on this family during a particularly tough time. They are complicated people, who make mistakes and love and fight and misunderstand and are misunderstood; you know, just like your own family."Noelle is her sister, but the fact is they can't stand each other, and when Lily feels uncomfortable she goes for high drama; histrionics is her point at rest."After a wild, promiscuous adolescence, Noelle moved to Israel, married and became an Orthodox Jew, closely following all rules. She felt that "she was peeling layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn't realized she was capable of molting."Clarissa "didn't say a word until she turned three, at which point she began to speak in full sentences. She suspects the story is exaggerated, but it gets at an essential truth about her." Lily "throws herself into things, whereas (Clarissa's) a watcher, she's cautious, she's a student first and she doesn't like to make mistakes."Henkin's describes his characters as they see themselves and as they are seen by the people who knew them best- their siblings. Anyone with siblings will get that right away.Thisbe describes what it's like to be a widow:"Everyone, she thinks, wants to know about the milestones- Leo's birthday, their anniversary- those are hard, of course, but it's the everyday things that are the toughest. When she used to shop for groceries, she would get this cereal Leo liked, Great Grains Raisins, Dates and Pecans, and she mustn't have been thinking because a couple of months she ended up with a box in her shopping cart."Describing what's it's like to become part of the Frankels, Thisbe says:"That's one of the things that appealed to me about Leo- the tumult of you Frankels, as if in your presence I am being swallowed by a many-tentacled beast and made into a tentacle myself. Clarissa, Lily and Noelle- you were older by the time I came along, but I still felt that in marrying Leo I was getting you as sisters and when he died, I lost you too. I know that losing a husband is different from losing a sibling, and it's especially different from losing a son." That paragraph states the theme of this beautiful, insightful novel- loss is different for everyone, and in The World Without You, we see how parents, siblings and spouses deal with that loss and the life that goes on.
Three years ago, our book club had an opportunity to chat with Joshua Henkin and discuss his book MATRIMONY. We had a great time chatting and discussing the book with him and also talking about writing in general. When Joshua Henkin contacted me to read and review his newest novel, I jumped at the chance. I was drawn into the family's different levels of dysfunction as well as their grief over the loss of their son and brother. But, what I wasn't drawn into was the overt liberal rhetoric throughout the novel. The Bush-Hate was so strong and blatant that it actually started to turn me off on the novel. It made me wonder if this was the author's way to get his political views out to the world. I understand there are people in our country who have strong opinions about the war and it was definitely feasible that the characters in this story would feel this way. But, it felt over the top at times. For those with a conservative view, it could be a turn-off.I tried to ignore the political talk and focus instead on the family dynamics and the characters individual stories. The level of grief each family member was feeling was very real for me and I felt their pain and hesitations with each other. Their stories were well written and developed and I felt a connection to each one. If you are looking for a story with a huge climax and page-turning drama, this won't be for you. But if you are looking for a relaxing family story for a lazy summer day, this would be a great choice.
The Blurb: It's July 4th, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday: the family is gathering for a memorial. Leo, the youngest of the four Frankel siblings and an intrepid journalist and adventurer, was killed one year ago while on assignment in Iraq. His parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief, and it's tearing apart their forty-year marriage. Clarissa, the eldest, is struggling at thirty-nine with infertility. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer, is angry about everything. Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew (and the last person to see Leo alive), has come in from Israel with her husband and four children and feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe--Leo's widow and mother of their three-year-old son--has arrived from California bearing her own secret. Over the course of three days, the Frankels will contend with sibling rivalries and marital feuds, volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, with the true meaning of family.What I thought:This one could have been a dreary, dragging soap-opera of a story. Instead Joshua Henkin has given us an engrossing character study of a family torn apart by grief. As the individuals come back to the scene of some of their happiest times together, they can't seem to let go of the unhappiness each one feels at losing their brother, husband, son. Instead of reaching out to others for support, they seem to want to play the "my grief is worse than yours" game, and continue to pile their melancholy and inability to cope on each other. At first I was angry at being subjected to all this grief, but then I began to see each person as an individual, and Henkin gives us wonderful back stories to allow us into the minds, hearts, and grievings of each member of the family, and helps us to see all the interactions, hopes and dreams of yesterday as well as the disappointments and unmet expectations of today as we stumble through the three days with each family member.When I finished I did wish the ending had been more crisp, but then realized that the author intended this to be as close to real life as possible, leaving his characters with some hope, some dread, some dreams, and at least the opportunity to work through the sorrow to a better future.
To mark the one year anniversary of journalist Leo Frankel¿s murder in Baghdad, the Frankel family returns, en masse, to their childhood vacation home to have a memorial service and unveiling for him. Three sisters and their brother¿s widow join their parents and return with their families to the family home in the Berkshires. The moment is emotional, and each participant brings with them secrets and personal baggage which influences their behavior and individual reactions to each other. There seems to be a lot of sibling rivalry and a pretense of conviviality, at times. Although the subject matter has depth, the book has a light touch which draws you into its pages. It explores the different personalities of the siblings and their parents, as they investigate their individual feelings about their brother/husband/son, his death and their reactions to it and each other. Their memories open doors for us, explaining the relationship of each to the other. All is not harmonious, and there are hidden facets of their lives revealed through conversations and an examination of their recollections about the past.Complete with an elderly, 95 year old grandmother who somehow aids in bringing closure to the events of the July 4th weekend, there are also political overtones and cultural conflicts. There are views expressed which may not be to the reader¿s liking, they were certainly discordant with mine, however, the story is engaging and it will capture your interest. How the characters relate to each other, often without the filter of mature judgment, reveals their prejudices and predispositions to certain biased beliefs. In an attempt to work out their problems, they often make them worse. Sibling rivalry is evident everywhere and marital discord abounds. In the end, a resolution is not always apparent and the reader is left to decide what will ultimately happen down the road. The time is 2005. President Bush is in the White House. The family is Jewish and their politics leans far to the left. In 2004, Leo was killed in Iraq, under circumstances that seemed reminiscent of Daniel Pearl. They are together as a family, probably for one last time. Although they are united in their strong dislike of the President, whom they blame for his death, they are united in their deep love and devotion to Leo, which each views through a different lens. There is a void in the lives of all of them which is being filled in different ways and which we learn about as their conflicts float to the surface and we watch their efforts at resolution.The sisters hold grudges against each other for past behavior. Each of their lives is being rent by the varied exigencies facing them in the present. One is trying to have a child, one is trying to make ends meet in another country and culture, one does not wish to be married at all but is in a committed relationship, the widow is trying to move on, and the parents are facing their own marital conflicts. Although many themes are investigated, it all ties together and the story is not disjointed in anyway. In the end relationships are explored from all angles. Often, expectations are not met and loyalty is far from a constant. Dependability is not a constant nor is common sense, but the problems and reactions are those that could be faced by ordinary families everywhere.Except for the politics, which I don¿t believe had to be as strong a feature of the story, I enjoyed the book. I do not like to have an author impose his or her particular political point of view on me or any reader. I do not think a novel is the appropriate venue to try and proselytize because it is a captive audience to which only one side of the position is presented. To paraphrase Paul Harvey, I would prefer ¿to know the rest of the story¿.
This was an excellent book. Right from the first chapter, it had me hooked, as a great story of one family, and the relationship challenges (indeed life challenges) we all face. I appreciated the fact that the story was told from differing perspectives - the parents, siblings, inlaws and wife of the dead journalist, who have gathered on Independence Day, to memorialize him, one year following his death. I could identify on many levels with many of the characters. The story is told with insight and warmth. Although the ending was somewhat trite, it was nonetheless satisfying and appealing. Four out of five stars. Recommended.
Joshua HenkinThe best literary fiction (and Joshua Henkin¿s latest is one of the best literary novels I have read in a long while) has the power to insert the reader into worlds that seem every bit as real as the one they actually inhabit. By the time I finished The World without You, I felt as if I had just spent a rather tense Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires with my friends, the Frankels and their spouses. Henkin¿s characters, all of them, are so well developed that I would feel quite comfortable now chatting with any of them over a cup of coffee or casual lunch. I know these people.David and Marilyn, their three daughters, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren gather at the family vacation home for what they already know will be an emotional weekend. They are there to participate in a memorial service for the youngest Frankel, Leo, a journalist who had been kidnapped and murdered in Iraq almost exactly one year earlier. Despite the passage of an entire year, it soon becomes clear that all of them are still suffering from the trauma of Leo¿s sudden loss. Emotions are raw, nerves are on edge, and as old resentments and outrages are openly expressed, the family¿s very survival will be tested. A scene from the novel, in which Leo¿s parents together describe an incident at a cocktail party they attended eight months after Leo¿s death, is so powerful that it haunts me still. Asked by a stranger at the party how many children they have, Marilyn answers ¿four¿ at precisely the moment her husband replies with ¿three.¿ At that moment, Marilyn felt, and still feels, a surge of anger and hurt that may have forever tainted the way she looks at David and their marriage. David, for his part, still cannot understand why what he said was so terrible. This tiny moment from their lives made these two characters more real to me than anything about them that came before.The beauty of The World without You and Joshua Henkin¿s writing is that so many of the other characters also had moving and poignant moments of their own in which they become utterly believable to the reader. Ultimately, this is not really a story about Leo Frankel and what happened to him in Iraq. Rather, it is a novel about the people Leo left behind to live in the world without him, and how these people will have their lives forever changed by his murder. To reconcile themselves to the grief they feel, all of them will be forced to dig deeply within themselves ¿ a process that finally begins one Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires.Rated at: 5.0
There is so much potential in this book. A family comes together on the year anniversary of the death of their son/brother¿just as a great deal of other family drama is coming to a head. Grief, anger, jealousy, love¿the ingredients are all there¿but the story unfolds without any real spice. The words seem to fall flat ¿ the reader is told how many of these characters feel without FEELING what they feel.Part of the problem, at least for me, was how dated it felt. The story takes place around July 4, 2005 - the point of which seems to be to dredge up the horrible time that was the Bush era. Trust me when I say that I agree with the anti-war and anti-Neo con sentiment, but by the fourth or fifth time a character mentions hating Bush or having a ¿Kerry-Edwards¿ sticker on their car ¿ even I was tired of it. And even those words seemed to lack emotion or passion. They come across as trotted out ¿ a ¿Remember those days?¿ kind of idea.I usually mark passages I find either extremely expressive, or well written or, conversely, poorly written. As I finished this book, I realized that I¿d only put one marker in place. In this one scene, I felt a flash of emotion.Marilyn, the mother of Leo (the son who died), thinks about her daughter-in-law: ¿It¿s her own fault, she believes. She still doesn¿t know why she didn¿t warm to Thisbe. Was it because everyone else warmed to her, because everyone found her so congenial, so winning, everyone, that is, except for Marilyn herself, who felt compelled to stand up for some principle she couldn¿t even name?¿ If the strongest sentiment that comes across in a book that deals with love, death, war, religion, politics, marriage, infertility and divorce is a sort of peevish motherly jealously ¿ there is something missing.¿The World Without You¿ comes across as story about a group of characters instead of a glimpse of the life of a flesh and blood family. Like puppets, their figures move around and say their lines but they never seem to lose their woodenness.
i think the the book was flat. i could certainly identify w/ this family's dysfunctionality but that's the book. most of the characters were well developed but the storyline just didn't excite me.
A nice read that keeps you coming back for ore.
An honest, quiet picture of family dynamics from so many angles. Reminded me a lot of "This is Where I Leave You" by Jonothan Tropper, but more subdued....not depressing, just thoughtful.
Every once in a while you find a book written in such a way that you want to savor it...make it last...like an excellent meal...small bites. This is one of those books. It is a family drama. They are anti-Bush WITH GOOD REASON as shown in the narrative. The story focuses on The World Without You...the You being Leo Frankel, a journalist taken hostage and killed in Iraq. It is a year later and his family gather for a memorial service. It is a novel about fictional characters but I will miss the extended Frankel family. Their story is delicious.