Joshua Henkin, author of “The World Without You” (Pantheon Books, $25.95), has frequently said in interviews that he first fell head over heels in love with reading and then convinced himself he could become a writer because he intuitively sensed what was missing in other people’s fiction. His antenna has failed him here. This is a sprawling novel about a large secular Jewish wealthy family gathered to memorialize the loss of their brother Leo, who was killed more than a year before, while working as a journalist in Iraq. The Frankel family is an accomplished bunch, yet there seems to be a mean streak that infuses the most minor of interactions. They don’t talk to one another, but seem to compete in an endless round robin of verbal volleyball that drains the reader’s patience. Perhaps worst of all, there is a bitterness in how they confront one other that lacks both empathy and insight. We sense that this is a family whose members long ago left each other’s daily orbit, and now time and distance have only deepened the corroded black holes that were present before the tragedy of their brother’s death.
The parents, Marilyn and David, have been married for more than 40 years and seem to exist in parallel universes of their own invention. They swipe at one another over trivialities, and the intimacy of their early years has clearly been replaced by the ritualized routines of upper middle class professional life. Marilyn is a doctor, and David used to teach high school English at a private school in Manhattan. The adult children are a diverse lot. The eldest, Clarissa, is 39 and struggling with infertility. Lily is a hot-tempered lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who seems to have channeled her mother’s intensity and perfectionism. Noelle had the most difficulty growing up with this clan, which might be why she now lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising four children and have become Orthodox. Her transition to religious life makes the entire family uncomfortable. There is also Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and their toddler son, who have flown in from California. Henkin begins the story in July of 2005 as the family gathers at the Frankel’s beloved summer home in the Berkshires.
If I were a publisher, or even a movie producer, and had received the proposal for this project, I would have green-lighted it immediately. Perhaps Joshua Henkin was going to treat us to a gut-wrenching meditation on family and sibling rivalry. Possibly he wanted to explore how most of us foolishly glorify our childhood and need to be forced to come to some sort of adult reckoning about what we really had and what we didn’t. Maybe this talented author wanted to shed some needed light on the unsettling mixture of love and bitterness that still confuses many of us whenever we go home again. Or perhaps Henkin was planning to veer off in an unexpected direction and shine his authorial gaze upon the loneliness of adult life, or the spellbinding allure of adult power. None of this happens.
Instead, Henkin chooses to inundate us with melancholy pseudo-dialogues and meaningless clips of conversation. No one seems to be actually talking. His characters feel like they are playing darts with one another. There is a repeated pattern of competitive jabs interspersed with embarrassed silences. Occasionally, one family member approaches another with an overly dramatic, “How are you?” which is usually followed with something like “Fine,” or perhaps “I’m always fine, aren’t I?” There is simply no penetration into anyone else’s consciousness, and the reader starts to dislike this bloodless group. Sadly, in Henkin’s dysfunctional familial universe, no one can help anyone else, let alone listen to them.
Yet, there is one scene that remains embedded in my memory, where Henkin seems to have finally given himself permission to linger. The Orthodox daughter, Noelle, goes upstairs to visit her father, who is lying placidly in his bed, reading a book about the Civil War. She approaches him uncomfortably with pecan ice cream, which she delicately sets down beside him. He asks her about her life in Israel and seems genuinely curious about her transition to religious life. She tells him about some of what she has mastered in order to become Orthodox and questions him about his own past. He reminisces with her about his love of teaching and how much he misses it. He tells her how important his students were to him and how competent he felt with them. She tells him how worried she is about him, and the silence that ensues makes sense, for once. But soon enough the ice cream she has brought him begins to melt, and Henkin takes us somewhere else.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.