Poet Geer Austin formerly led workshops for LGBT homeless youth at New Alternatives, Sylvia’s Place, and the Times Square-supported housing project. This week, he reviews Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, a novel about one family’s celebration of an Independence Day during the Iraq War.
In Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You: A Novel, the brilliant and privileged Frankels seem capable of conquering the world. We meet Noelle, the youngest daughter, who slept with half the boys in Mamaroneck High School in her teens but has relocated to Israel to be a strict Orthodox Jew; Lily, the middle daughter, a public interest lawyer married to a gentile, who believes Israel is a warmongering country and seems to reject Judaism; and the eldest daughter, Clarissa, who sparks the family’s competitive fires by announcing that her husband Nathaniel has won the Columbia University award for Professor of the Year.
Despite their failing marriage of forty years, Marilyn and David Frankel’s family is a great one, yet they have suffered a great loss: Leo the youngest sibling and only son, a journalist, has been murdered in Iraq, with the family’s tragedy playing out in the national media. President George W. Bush – the novel takes place during his second term – has adopted Leo as an American hero. But Marilyn, the fierce matriarch of the Frankel clan, denounces Bush’s policies in op-ed articles published in newspapers across the country, as her husband looks on between home improvement projects.
Henkin’s novel takes place during a Fourth of July weekend at the Frankel’s country house in the Berkshires, where they have gathered for a private memorial one year after Leo’s grisly death. Thisbe, his widow, seems the only member of the extended family capable of recovering from the loss — with the help of another man she plans to move in with.
The novel often reads like a face-off between family members. Thisbe vs. Marilyn: How will Marilyn react when she learns of Thisbe’s new relationship? Noelle vs. her entire family: She refuses to eat the kosher food her parents bought her because their kitchen is not kosher. And Lily vs. the World: At age thirty-nine, Lily struggles to become pregnant and remembers her happiest years to be a time she served as Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s only liberal law clerk.
But as explosive as the women exchanges appear, the men in The World Without You tread lightly across the page. David retreats into home DIY projects. Nathaniel, the Nobel Prize winner-in-waiting, floats outside the action of the novel, except when called upon to attempt to impregnate Clarissa. Lily’s live-in boyfriend has even skipped the family weekend to go fishing with his buddies. The slight exception is Noelle’s husband Amram, who storms out of the family home after an argument, and Noelle fears he will never return.
The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel. His stories have appeared in an A-list of literary journals and magazines, and he directs the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Here, he writes in an assured and omniscient, yet casual, voice that reads like a first draft: intimate and conversational. He never resists following a tangent, and we learn so many seemingly extraneous details about the Frankels that by the end of the novel you feel a member of the family. This is a novel to read over a long summer weekend, between cookouts and dips in a large body of water. Within the pages of The World Without You, you’ll perhaps recognize yourself, or your family, or glance up to see the Frankels striding down the beach.