Joshua Henkin opens his third novel with a dramatic setup. Leo Frankel has been killed while reporting from Iraq for Newsday. He was kidnapped and videotaped in a way reminiscent of how American journalist Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was killed in Pakistan in 2002. Over the past decade, dozens of newspeople have been killed each year in war zones, making this a timely subject for fiction. But Henkin places Leo's dramatic death offstage, telling it in sketchy snippets. His focus is on the ripple effects of the aftermath of Leo's death on his intimate family circle — his grandmother, parents, three sisters and in-laws, his widow and 3-year-old son.
Henkin showed a fascination with the domestic in his earlier novels. His first, Swimming Across the Hudson (1997), explores the shock to the narrator, who was raised an Orthodox Jew on the Upper West Side, when he is contacted by his San Francisco-based birth mother. Matrimony (2007) follows a couple of campus sweethearts through 20 years of marriage, including graduate school, multiple moves and a bout of infidelity.
In The World Without You, Henkin expands his scope to a chorus of narrators from multiple generations and compresses his action into a few days — three days over a stormy July 4 holiday one year after Leo's death, with a planned memorial service and grave unveiling.
He sets the scene primarily in the Frankel family's memory-filled summer home in the Berkshires. The hallway is hung with Kathe Kollwitz etchings, faded portraits of Leo's great-grandparents and an old charcoal street map of Paris. It's a comfortably cluttered house; its nooks and crannies are perfect for quiet one-on-one conversations, marital squabbles, family competitions, parent-child confessions and musings about family ties now frayed by distance. Henkin creates a powerful sense of each individual's hopes, fears and simmering aggravations, set against the evocative landscape of childhood summers. Even his younger characters (five boys ages 3 to 8) have distinct personalities.
And it seems everyone has a secret. Clarissa, the eldest sister at 39, and her husband, Nathaniel, arrive late, having stopped at a Hampton Inn because she discovered she was ovulating. Since Leo's death she has been trying to get pregnant. Lily, 38, has left her boyfriend, a Washington, D.C., chef, behind. Noelle, known as a "nympho" in high school and now an Orthodox wife and mother of four sons living in Jerusalem, is disoriented by her homecoming and beset with worries. Thisbe, Leo's widow, a Berkeley graduate student, is teetering on the verge of a new commitment.
The biggest shock is announced at the first family dinner: Marilyn and David Frankel, now known as the parents of the dead journalist, are on the verge of separating after 42 years of marriage, torn apart by their differing reactions to his death. His mother has become an anti-war crusader, publicly refusing an invitation to the White House from President Bush. His father has taken up running, opera librettos and chopping vegetables after studying what Marilyn refers to as "Slicing and Dicing 101" at the 92nd Street Y.
As Henkin's meandering story takes us through the holiday, marital squabbles, sibling gabfests and surprise announcements overshadow the memorial. Leo's death has, it seems, forced everyone close to him to re-examine life. His mother, for instance, "feels like a voyeur, looking in on a life that's no longer hers." Henkin steers us thoughtfully through three days of missed connections, lukewarm marital sex, unpredictable arrivals and departures and Berkshire moments. Noelle and Thisbe rollerblade through Lenox, weaving through bumper-to-bumper traffic to Stockbridge Bowl, a lake where Noelle startles her sister-in-law by skinny-dipping within hearing range of a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood.
The World Without You gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. The most powerful and unexpected effect in this compassionate and beguiling novel is not what it tells us about Leo and his final days, but how much Henkin makes us care about those he has left behind.