Skip to main content

The World Without You


The World Without You

Some plots are guaranteed emotional powerhouses. If you want to put a lump in your readers’ throats and keep it there throughout your novel, you might want to consider killing an only son, or announce the unraveling of a long marriage, or explore the dynamics of sibling relationships that are fraught with long–festering conflicts. These are all good options. But to really let your readers have it, combine all three. That’s what Joshua Henkin has done in his latest novel, THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU.

"[F]or a modern-day family drama to work, it needs many intersecting conflicts and richly drawn characters. In that respect, THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU is a generous work of literature."

It’s July 4th weekend 2005. On Independence Day 2004, the journalist Leo Frankel, Marilyn and David Frankel’s only son, was killed in Iraq. His surviving family members gather for the weekend at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts. The one-year memorial service scheduled for the holiday is an affair certain to command a lot of attention from outsiders. Most people in Lenox knew Leo from the summers that he, his parents and his three sisters spent there. Many more know of him because Marilyn, an Upper East Side physician, has written anti-war op-ed pieces for major national publications since Leo’s death. She’s not quite a fictional version of Cindy Sheehan, but she’s close.

Clarissa, Leo’s oldest sister at 39, drives to Lenox from Brooklyn with her husband, Nathaniel, a 44-year-old neuroscientist who has been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Since Leo’s death, they have tried but failed to have a baby. Noelle, the middle daughter, has to travel the farthest to get to the Berkshires. She, her husband Amram and their four sons are Orthodox Jews who live in Jerusalem. Lily, the third daughter, is a high-powered lawyer in Washington, DC. When she picks up Noelle from Boston’s Logan Airport, it’s not long before they resume the arguments they always engage in whenever they get together.

Joining them at the Frankels’ house for the weekend is Leo’s widow, Thisbe, who is in her first year of an anthropology PhD program in California, and their three-year-old son Calder. Thisbe is deciding when to share some news that could receive a hostile reaction from the family.

However, Thisbe’s isn’t the biggest bombshell. After 42 years together, Marilyn and David have decided to separate. Leo’s death has devastated them so thoroughly that they can no longer stay married. But they fear that their announcement will bring as much sadness and instability to the family as Leo’s death did the year before.

These combined plot threads taking place over a period of a few days set up a novel that is an intense experience. Much of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU consists of quiet conversations between two characters. Henkin sets up everyone’s dilemmas so well that the undercurrent of tension in each scene is often unbearable. You feel Amram’s resentment toward the successful Nathaniel during their scenes together. When Clarissa watches Noelle’s boys, you know just what she’s thinking. To create this many characters and give each one a distinct personality isn’t easy. That Henkin manages to pull off this formidable narrative challenge is impressive.

Henkin does occasionally undercut the tension by giving us too much backstory. He has so many flashbacks that, after a while, one wonders why the flashbacks weren’t the story instead of some of the present-day scenes. And I think a more daring narrative style might have made the story even more powerful than it already is. Nevertheless, for a modern-day family drama to work, it needs many intersecting conflicts and richly drawn characters. In that respect, THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU is a generous work of literature.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on June 22, 2012

The World Without You
by Joshua Henkin

  • Publication Date: April 9, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307277186
  • ISBN-13: 9780307277183