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Monday, July 9, 2012

The World Without You: Family Squabbles

Joshua Henkin's new novel The World Without You won't strike you as earth-shatteringly original or as a work of immense literary flair. It knows what it is — a contemporary tale about a falling-apart family — and it feels no inadequacy in that regard. It's a quick, character-driven read that means to show how a tragic event can drastically rearrange the dynamics of a family. And it's one of my favorite kinds of stories — modern, smart, and realistic.

Indeed, if you want to feel better about your own relationship and your relationship with your family, I'd suggest giving this novel a go. The members of the Frankel family have loads of problems, but finding someone to argue with ain't one. The three mid-to-late-thirties Frankel daughters have gathered at their parents' summer house in the Berkshires to memorialize their younger brother Leo — who was killed a year ago working as a journalist in Iraq.

Long-standing problems come to a head in the emotionally charged environment of the forced "family reunion." That's especially true for the parents Marilyn and David, who have decided to end their 40-year-marriage, ostensibly because each reminds the other too much of their dead son.

Now, they have to tell their daughters, who each is struggling through her own relationship issue. Most interesting of these is the youngest daughter Noelle, now in her mid-30s, but whose teenage and early-20s basically involved screwing anything that moved. But she found found religion and settled in Jerusalem as an Orthodox Jew, where she and her lazy, angry-at-the-world husband Amram are struggling to raise their four boys.

What's more, Leo's widow Thisbe (and the couple's three-year-old son Calder, who barely remembers his father) is in attendance. And she has a few secrets she can't begin to fathom how to reveal to the family.

The World Without You is a quick read. It's not too cerebral, and it certainly won't trip you up trying to puzzle out all the hidden meanings or literary fireworks. I'd even go so far to describe it as a "literary beach read." This is the second Henkin novel I've read, after his 2007 novel Matrimony, and I've enjoyed them both. If you're not familiar with Henkin, here's a great interview with him at The Millions to help you get to know him a little better. And if you like modern, character-driven fiction about families and their troubles, The World Without You is definitely for you. 

7 comments:

  1. Did the coldness of the characters bother you at all? I kept thinking - how can these people be so harsh to each other?

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    1. You're right - there is definitely no bullsh!t between them, but I actually kind of liked that about them. No passive-aggressiveness, they're direct and they say what they mean. At first, it bothered me about them, yes - but then I realized after all they'd been through, they've earned the right to be like that with each other, because there is the occasional moment of warmth, too - in which it's clear their differences and their meanness is usually only out of frustration (except maybe for Lily and Noelle, but even they sort of kiss and make up)... Their harshness bothered you, I take it?

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    2. Yeah, I found it a little unrealistic. I don't know people who talk to each other like that. There was no empathy, no soft edges. I had the same problem with Matrimony.

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  2. Just finished a family-on-the blitz book in We Only Know So Much, which seemed to go for humor more (see http://www.thecuecard.com/ ). The World Without You sounds rather more intense

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    1. Yeah, this wasn't exactly a ball of laughs - but it's not supposed to be. Still very enjoyable though.

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  3. I'm about halfway through this novel and I'm really enjoying it so far. When I read Gayle's comment I don't think the book was too harsh when you consider the content and the events.

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    1. That's a good point - it's an emotional powderkeg there. Of course they're going to be a bit short with each other. Glad to hear you're enjoying it, too.

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