Sunday, June 24, 2012

The World Without You (A Book Review)

Maybe the Jewish people have it right when they have everyone come back together a year after the death of their loved one to unveil the headstone of the deceased. (Jewish funerals themselves are typically held as soon as possible after the death, and focus on simplicity.) The year following a death is so raw, so subject to erratic and illogical changes, so horrifically demanding. The survivors attempt to return to life "as is," while routine activities (do you put the deceased's favorite soda in the shopping cart before realizing there's no one to drink it?) threaten to nudge open the barely healed wounds of grief. Perhaps, in addition to the unveiling ceremony, the family needs to be together at a different stage of the grieving process. They are not the same people they were a year before.

When Joshua Henkin paid our Holy Comforter book club the courtesy of a phone conversation back in 2008, to discuss his book Matrimony, he told us that his next book would be a focus on a three-day period of time. We knew a family would be brought together and lives would change.

Now that The World Without You has been published, we readers are given an opportunity to get to know Marilyn and David Frankel, along with their three living offspring, as they reconvene in order to unveil their son and brother Leo's headstone, a year after he was killed while reporting in Iraq. (Leo's widow, Thisbe, and son, Calder, are along for the get-together as are the four grandsons who belong to Noelle.)

At the time I received an Advance Reader's Edition of The World Without You, I was struggling mightily to read anything on paper/e-reader. Audiobooks are rolling through my ears at a fast clip, but I had failed to complete any book club assignments and, honestly, had started and re-started Pride and Prejudice more times than I can count. I was stuck.

Three days with Marilyn, David, and crew got me un-stuck. Here is why:

I wanted to know what happened with these people. David and Marilyn open the book, having arrived at their Berkshires home early to prepare for the arrival of their children. As each child (and Clarissa's and Noelle's spouses) arrive, the dynamics shift. When Amram, Noelle, and their four boys from Israel arrive, the dynamics go into hyperdrive. I have to admit being most compelled to figure out what made Noelle tick. The sexually adventurous, anything-but-modest redhead had found herself in Israel, covered herself in the restrictive clothing (and behaviors) of the Orthodox Jew, given birth to four boys, and arrived for the unveiling, struggling to find common ground with Amram, who is searching for his own kind of meaning.

So many little (and big) things sparked an "I can relate to that" thought for me. When Thisbe, living in New York City with Leo, tucks $40 into a separate fold of her wallet, as a "Plan B" should her lunch money run out, I was instantly transported back to the $10 bills I used to tuck into my shoe when I lived in New York City, so I would have a way to get home in case I got mugged. When Thisbe and Noelle are lingering within hearing range of The Tanglewood Institute, overhearing a James Taylor concert, I can't help but think of listening to James Taylor with my friend Mary Jane at Jones Beach in the early 90's. When the discussion turns to the 2000 election, the recount, and the ripple effects on this family's lives, I see the reporters here in Tallahassee, at a downtown hotel, coming into the bar and getting their own drinks rather than getting waited on, having long ago resigned themselves to being Tallahassee residents until the recount situation resolved itself. They no longer needed to be waited on. Thisbe, an only child who marries into a large family, reflects "how happy I am, as an only child, to fade into the woodwork a bit at our large family gatherings" (my husband is the oldest of six and I feel similarly). Thisbe talks about this at the unveiling, saying that one of the things that appealed to her, marrying in, was "...the tumult of you Frankels, as if in your presence I was being swallowed by a many-tentacled beast and made into a tentacle myself."

The gorgeous turns of phrase. I love beautifully written sentences the way some art connoisseurs appreciate exquisite brushstrokes. Here are some examples:

When Marilyn is describing her relationship with Nora, Leo's girlfriend prior to Thisbe: "She liked Nora. But there was always a species of compassion in the way she liked her."

At a tense moment around the family dinner table, when Thisbe and Marilyn are tenuously staking out an attempt at détente and Thisbe needs backup: "...everyone else is quietly chewing their food, a bunch of ruminants, unmoving and silent, as if they've been ossified by Marilyn's words."

David's musing about his daughter Lily and her mother: "...the two of them, the reddest of the redheads, fueled by their impatience, which darts like a beam of light into every corner of the room."

This author made an effort to engage me. There's another reason I was pleased to read this book and even more pleased to report how much I liked it. In ways that may have seemed small to him but made a big impact on me, I have learned a lot from Josh Henkin about the state of writing and publishing today. He has not shied from interacting directly with his readers at a time when author outreach can make the difference between anemic sales and the success of a book. He told our book club about how he approaches his writing (and teaching), and he was gracious when our book club members patiently explained the difference between a garter and a garter belt (you kind of had to have been there!).

One last masterful turn of phrase to share with you. It may not be elaborate, but it sums up neatly, in six words, the conclusion that each individual who stays at the house in Lenox discovers over one holiday weekend:
"We all need taking care of." - Thisbe.

I encourage you to read this book to delve into the Frankel family's holiday weekend. Arguably, there wasn't much about it that spoke to "holiday" but everything spoke about humanity.

To learn more about author Joshua Henkin, here are some resources:


To order The World Without You:  Click this link.

To "like" Josh on his Facebook Author page: Click this link.

To tweet Josh: Click this link.

*A note of gratitude to Pantheon Books for the Advance Reader's Edition they provided me.

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