The ties that bind can also garrote, especially when it comes to the tumultuous terrain of family, and nowhere is this more clear than in “The World Without You,’’ Joshua Henkin’s blazingly alive new novel.
It’s July 4, 2005, but the Frankel clan is gathering at their summer home in the Berkshires for a different kind of fireworks. The holiday marks the first time the whole family has gathered since Leo, a journalist and the youngest of the siblings, died in Iraq. In three days of togetherness, including the memorial and unveiling service, members will harbor secrets, tell lies, and rediscover themselves and one another.
Henkin has already proven his mastery at characterization with his previous novel “Matrimony,” and here he leisurely peels his characters’ layers to uncover revelations about each one in small, perfect shocks. Marilyn and David, Leo’s parents, are in their 70s, married for 40 years, but they’re now about to separate because of their very different ways of dealing with their son’s death. Desperately holding on to Leo’s memory, Marilyn writes furious op-eds against the war and keeps a running tally of the casualties, both Iraqi and American. But as desperate as she is to immerse herself in the war as a way to keep Leo alive, her husband is equally determined to move on, shutting off his grief and replacing it as best he can with a “Slicing and Dicing 101” class at the Y, and downsizing the number of children he now tells people that he has. And “because he’s been trying to make the best of an unspeakable situation, she hasn’t been able to abide him.”
The Frankel daughters arrive with more baggage than suitcases. Desperate to have a child, Clarissa is battling both infertility and Nathaniel, her husband, a professor and neuroscientist, who’s grown tired of the pressure. Noelle, yearning to feel loved, spent her formative years sleeping with boys and now is a not-all-that-happily married Orthodox Jew living in Israel, a handy way of putting distance between herself and her family. Her husband has just lost his job; he seems to be losing interest in her, and visiting her family has become a minefield. Lily’s a public-interest lawyer who keeps her devoted live-in boyfriend, Matthew, at arm’s length, even as she grapples with the rage simmering inside her at the way her life has unfolded. Last comes Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who arrives from California with their 3-year-old son, Calder, along with a secret she’s not sure she wants to divulge. She provides the fullest, most complex and complicated portrait of Leo.
As personalities and politics clash (while Marilyn rages against the war, Noelle admits that even though she’s not a war supporter, she voted for Bush because he’s a friend to Israel), connections between parents and kids, sisters and sister-in-law, begin to fray.
Henkin isn’t just a master with character. He grounds his novel in both time and place, creating a living, breathing world that is so indelible we can taste the white gazpacho in the Frankel’s Upper West Side kitchen as well as the noodle kugel Noelle eats in Jerusalem, even as we smell the grasses in their country home, “a Massachusetts outpost of the Upper West Side.”
Henkin renders all the details, from the tony shops to the tennis courts, exactly right, and he also gets at the subtle class distinctions that go along with the territories. While Thisbe is perceived as the sunny girlfriend from happy-go-lucky California, she quietly casts shadows that upend her image. New York doyenne, uber-wealthy grandmother Gretchen, who had the luck to marry three CEOs, wields money as the only kind of power she has over her family, but even her control proves shakier than she would imagine.
Gorgeously written, and as beautifully detailed as a tapestry, Henkin delicately probes what these family members really mean to one another. A deeply frustrated Noelle might ask, “Wasn’t Leo’s death supposed to bring us together?’’ But it is Henkin who provides the truest answers, showing what really makes or breaks the Frankels, and what binds mother to children, husband to wife, and sibling to sibling.
As the Frankels shatter and reconfigure in ways as surprising as they are inevitable, we come to know and deeply care about each one of them. In the end, we’re left waiting to see what comes next, but the anticipation is as compassionate, intelligent, and shining as this novel itself.Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “Is It Tomorrow,” will be published by Algonquin Books in spring 2013. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.