The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon; 336 pages; $25.95).
Marilyn and David Frankel, loving parents to four adult children, are living their worst nightmare in Joshua Henkin’s new novel The World Without You. Their son, Leo, a journalist, was captured in Iraq, accused of being a U.S. agent, paraded before cameras, and executed on July 4, 2004. It was almost too much for his family to bear.
President George W. Bush only made matters worse when he called Leo an ally in the war against terror. Marilyn wants to “spit on Bush.” “The nerve of that man,” she says, “to claim my son as his ally.” Leo “hated that war” and was never “political.” Leo’s parents still struggle one year later as the whole family reunites for his memorial service.
Leo’s death threatens to tear his family apart. Marilyn and David’s forty-two-year marriage is on the verge of collapse. They no longer talk like they once did. Marilyn channels all of her grief and rage into anti-war op-ed pieces she writes for newspapers. They tell their remaining children (Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle) they plan to separate. Marilyn tries to explain their reasons for splitting up: “We lost our son.” Leo’s death, Marilyn says, “ruined” them. The more Marilyn vocalizes her grief, the more silent David becomes. He stages a “mute protest” and furiously prepares their vacation home for its eventual sale after their divorce.
The Frankel sisters are having a difficult time themselves. Eldest daughter Clarissa desperately wants a baby, but conception is proving difficult. Throughout the story, Clarissa remembers holding Leo when he was an infant. She thought of herself as “Leo’s second mother.” “In a lot of ways,” Clarissa reveals, “I thought of myself as his first mother.” Not until his death did she truly want a child; now, it may be too late.
Lily, the second sister, has been with her boyfriend for over a decade. They are happily unmarried and childless, although everyone has a hard time accepting this fact. Her father asks Lily about it and she tells him that if she and Malcolm “were to have children, we probably would be married, just because it would be easier on them if we did.” For Lily, if it happens, it happens.
Noelle is Leo’s third and least likeable sister. Noelle, former wild child, became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel with her husband, Amram. They have four sons. Amram recently lost his job. The constraints of their religion threaten their marriage. Noelle seems uncertain who she is anymore and who she wants to become. Amram disappears after an argument, and his absence weighs heavily on Noelle and her sons. One of the boys forgets his toilet training. It all becomes too much for her: “It’s Amram’s fault, yet it’s her fault, too; she might as well not be able to keep her own bladder in check. Sleeping with whatever boy came her way. What good is her newfound modesty when she can’t control things any more than she ever could?” Noelle cannot “control her husband and she can’t control her children, and what good is she if she can’t do that?”
Thisbe, Leo’s widow and the mother of his son, also attends the memorial service. She is a graduate student in California. During her visit, Thisbe struggles with two secrets of her own. She tries to navigate the choppy waters of a family she married into but no longer feels a part. Thisbe felt like being in the presence of the Frankels was like “being swallowed by a many-tentacled beast and made into a tentacle” herself. When she and Leo married, Thisbe thought his sisters became hers. When Leo died, Thisbe felt like she experienced a two-fold loss: her husband and her newly-acquired sisters.
The Frankels truly are a bereft, heartbroken family. The passage of time has not healed their wounds. There is a gulf between family members, and this chasm is ever-widening.
Henkin’s narrative underscores how loss makes people do strange things. Each person experiences grief in his or her own individual way. A grief manual for dummies does not exist. Henkin ably illustrates how Leo’s death affects his parents, his sisters, his wife, and others around him. The themes Henkin focuses on in his story are universal ones, such as love, loss, war, redemption, and forgiveness. Henkin ably tells the story from many different perspectives, allowing the reader to understand one person’s grief process is distinct from another’s. There is strong anti-war sentiment to this family’s heartwrenching tale.
Marilyn, especially, is vitriolic against Bush and blames him for her son’s death. Through Marilyn, Henkin shows the depth of a mother’s love for her son, the bonds mother and child share, and how her whole world has crumbled. For her, life without Leo is bleak.
The gloom in this novel is as thick as New England fog or cloud cover: “It’s like we’re going through this cloud cover, and then there’s more cloud cover and more cloud cover and it never stops.” Despite the dark climate of Henkin’s story, there is always hope. That hope comes in the guise of Leo’s 94-year-old grandmother.
The World Without You is a tension-filled, character-driven account of the downward spiral of an American family. Just when things seem darkest, though, sometimes a ray of sunlight shines through the storm clouds. Henkin’s story will engage you. His characters will linger long after you finish the novel. What’s more, his story will force you to put yourself and your family in the Frankel’s place. How would you react to such tragedy? How would you cope? I daresay everyone would unravel. Everyone would come apart at the seams. That makes the Frankels and Henkin’s story very real.