THERE IS NOTHING like a novel set in the recent past to remind you of how quickly things change. In 2005, if a novelist had published a book that hinged on the murder of a Jewish American journalist by Islamic terrorists in Iraq, it would have been read as a political novel, a war novel, a post-9/11 novel—and, of course, a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in 2002 in Pakistan. Seven years later, Joshua Henkin has published just such a book in The World Without You, which is set in 2005 on the anniversary of the murder of Leo Frankel, whose story closely mirrors Pearl’s. The story takes place entirely on the Fourth of July weekend—an invitation to reflect on the state of the nation if ever there was one.
Yet the passage of time has made it possible for Henkin to turn this headline-news premise into a book that is quiet, inward-turning, and largely apolitical. Leo Frankel’s death is alluded to but it is never actually described. The particular reasons for his murder matter less than the void it has left in the lives of his family: that void, not Iraq or terrorism or anti-Semitism, is Henkin’s real subject. It has brought Leo’s parents, the long and happily married David and Marilyn, to the brink of divorce; it has deepened the divisions among his three sisters, Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle; and it has left his widow, Thisbe, with the terrifying freedom to start a new life.
The World Without You follows these characters as they gather in the Frankels’ summer house in Lenox, Massachusetts, for the unveiling of Leo’s grave. Henkin proceeds by means of dialogues and meditations, with hardly a set-piece or dramatic eruption to be found. Even the memorial service, which promises to be the climax of the weekend and the novel, and around which so many emotions are swirling, is spared the fate of becoming a denouement or a symbol. Instead, it is just another one of the evenly narrated events of the weekend, where nothing especially dramatic happens. There is only the small change of a summer weekend in the Berkshires: a bicycle ride, a swim in the lake, a drive into town, a game of tennis.
In every respect, The World Without You marks an advance on Henkin’s previous book, Matrimony, which came out in 2007. Matrimony, as its title suggests, had an even narrower focus than the new book. It told the story of a couple, Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, from their meeting in college through their fifteenth reunion. In fact, Julian and Mia never wholly escape the gravitational field of college. Each chapter of the book is titled after a college town where they spend a phase of their lives, from the fictional Northington, Massachusetts—a thinly veiled Williamstown or Amherst—through Ann Arbor, where Mia goes to graduate school, and Iowa City, where Julian attends the Writers’ Workshop.
Novels about would-be writers and permanent grad students are plentiful, and naturally enough they tend to be comedies. But Matrimony is not that kind of book, and the spectacle of Julian’s stasis, the extreme slow-motion of his growing up, produces instead a kind of uncomfortable pity in the reader. The World Without You builds on the strengths of Matrimony while avoiding its claustrophobia. The social class Henkin writes about remains the same—these are all upper-middle-class professionals who went to Yale or Princeton and have jobs like public-interest lawyer, doctor, and celebrity chef. The town of Lenox, which Henkin describes with such up-to-date detail—the streets, the restaurants, the shops—that the book could practically serve as a travel guide, is a moneyed enclave in a world in turmoil. The distance from Lenox to Baghdad is so immense that what happens to Leo cannot really be admitted into the novel, or into the Frankels’ lives: if Leo’s throat was cut on videotape by Jew-hating fanatics, the way Daniel Pearl’s was, we do not hear about it.
Whatever can be said against such a protected milieu in political or economic terms, there is much to be said for it in literary terms. For literary character to develop and deepen, it helps to be able to recollect emotion in tranquility, and tranquility is one thing the Berkshires offer in abundance. Deepening, in fact, is the characteristic movement of Henkin’s fiction, in The World Without You no less than in Matrimony. On the spectrum of American Jewish novelists at work today, he is closest to the conventional realism of Allegra Goodman—a style that can look rather sedate next to more formally and thematically adventurous contemporaries such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Cohen. He does not hurry his characters forward with events because he is more interested in the slowly ramifying details of their inner lives.
For Marilyn and David, the fallout from Leo’s death has accentuated the differences in their personalities. Marilyn clings to her anger, while David, a benign, nondescript figure, tries to make the best of things: retired, he takes a cooking class at the 92nd Street Y and starts to study opera librettos. When, eight months after Leo’s death, they are asked how many children they have, Marilyn answers “four” and David says “three”—which tells us everything we need to know about their styles of grieving and facing the future. Inconsolable, Marilyn has channeled her grief into the writing of furious op-eds against the Iraq War and President Bush: “President Bush called him a martyr in the war to rid the world of evil. He invited [the] family to the White House. Publicly, her mother refused to go. She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way, to become an instrument in the service of the war.”
But if Marilyn is meant to be an echo of Cindy Sheehan, it is only a faint one, because Henkin does not take her activism wholly seriously or show us much of what it entails. It matters in the novel only as a symptom of loss. The writing is so even-toned, its compass so reminiscent of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory,” as to seem like a statement by Henkin about the nature of the novel. The province of fiction, he suggests, is not what happens in the world but what happens in the family, that miniature world in which all our primal experiences take place.
Yet while Marilyn and David are the first characters we meet, and their intention to divorce hangs over the rest of the novel, they turn out to be minor presences. Henkin is more interested in Clarissa, Leo’s older sister, and Thisbe, his widow, both of whom are troubled less by the persistence of their grief than by the forward momentum of their lives. Clarissa’s sudden decision, at the age of thirty-nine, that she wants to become a mother is obviously linked to the loss of Leo, whom she mothered when he was a baby. This leads to some fairly familiar scenes of fussing with ovulation kits and the comedy of unerotic, dutiful, reproductive sex.
Thisbe, meanwhile, has already fallen in love again, leaving her unsure whether she still has a right to belong to Leo’s family. Her new boyfriend is named Wyeth, and her son with Leo is named Calder. It is not totally clear that Henkin is trying to lampoon this group with their trendy, artsy names—they even live in California!—but the effect is to accentuate their difference from the more down-to-earth Frankels. At Leo’s memorial service, Thisbe gives a speech promising that she will always be a part of Leo’s family, but Henkin finely conveys her ambivalence, the way she declares it only because she fears it is not true.
Yet the most unusual and vibrant family member is not Thisbe but Noelle, the youngest of Leo’s sisters. In high school, we learn, her low self-esteem led her to promiscuity: “Noelle the slattern. Lubricious Noelle. Licentious. Lascivious. Wanton. Slut.” The psychological equation here is a little too pat: “Noelle … feels in that instant when a guy is about to come, in that moment of rapture that crosses his face, that everything’s okay and somebody loves her.” But there is something truthful about it, just as there is in the way that Noelle, the lost and wounded child, is the one who ends up moving to Israel and embracing Orthodox Judaism.
In a way, the Frankels seem to have off-loaded their Jewishness and all the questions it raises onto Noelle, just as the novel itself does. For a Jewish family living in post-9/11 America, and one whose son was murdered by Islamic terrorists, they seem excessively detached from any kind of Jewish awareness. Henkin never shows us the family talking about Jewish subjects, or Jewish or Israeli politics, or even mixing with other Jews—a gap that amounts to a failure of realism.
Jewishness is left to Noelle, who in keeping with her personality takes it to an extreme. Having made her way to Israel in her aimless post-collegiate wanderings, she bumps into an old high-school classmate, the hapless, not-quite-likable Arthur. Soon enough they are invited to a Shabbat dinner by a missionary at the Western Wall, and these two self-declared “lost souls” find themselves embracing the strictures of Orthodoxy. Now Arthur has become Amram, and Noelle finds herself the mother of four Israeli boys, shepherding them back to America on an El Al flight.
The introduction of these ba’alei tshuvah, or returners to the fold, into the ultra-secular world of the Frankels leads to inevitable complications. Marilyn and David go to the trouble of buying an entire new set of dishes so that Noelle’s family can eat in their kitchen, only to find that it’s not enough. “The kitchen itself would need to be kosher,” Noelle explains, “The oven, the dishwasher, the microwave, everything.” Orthodoxy entails a politics as well as a lifestyle: Noelle, we learn, is the only Frankel who voted for George W. Bush, seeing him as a friend of Israel and an enemy of terrorism. “Lily holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” Henkin writes, a good reminder of the virulent Bush-hatred on the left, which matches the current Obama-hatred on the right. “With Noelle, though, it’s worse; she was Leo’s sister. You killed your own brother! she wants to shout.”
Henkin shows how the condescension felt by the Orthodox Noelle for her non-practicing siblings is exactly mirrored by their condescension toward what they see as her tribalism and superstition. These tensions come to a head in one of the novel’s best scenes, when Amram hijacks a family game of Celebrity by writing down the names of Jewish heroes and famous rabbis. None of the Frankels recognize Yossi Beilin or Rav Kook, and Amram gloats over their ignorance, which lets him win the game; yet the whole episode reflects just as badly on Amram, showing how his Jewishness serves as a form of one-upmanship.
Henkin also makes some gentle comedy out of the way Noelle’s children, in turn, rebel against her decision to make aliyah. The eight-year-old Akiva, for instance, is obsessed with the NBA:
He’s happy in Israel; it’s his home. Yet he believes that his parents, in moving to Jerusalem, voluntarily left heaven for the false consolations of earth. It’s as if in making aliyah they left in the NBA itself, and so he inquires about their lives in the United States, thinking there must something more than what his mother has told him, that they’re Jews and they want to live in the Jewish homeland.
There is more to it, of course. Noelle lives in Israel because of the person she used to be in America, just as all the Frankels’s lives are determined by the absent past. The World Without You draws the reader into those lives quietly but seductively and confirms that Henkin is a novelist of distinguished gifts.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.