Here,” she says, “I’ll get you a sweater.” She’s barely done speaking before she’s taking the stairs two at a time, her espadrilles clomping against the peeling wood, transporting her down the long hallway. It’s July and twilight comes late, so even now, at nine o’clock, the last of the sun still colors the sky, but inside the house the corridors are dark and she’s neglected to illuminate the antique standing lamp at the top of the stairs as if to reflect an inner austerity. It’s their country house, but like their apartment in the city the hallway runs through it, an endless spine, which she traverses now, past the Kathe Kollwitz etchings and the street map of Paris and the photographs of her and David’s grandparents staring down at them on opposite sides of the wall from another continent and century. She moves with such purpose (dogged, implacable: those are the words David uses to describe her) that when she reaches the lip of their bedroom and steps inside she’s startled to discover she’s forgotten what she came for.
She calls out to him, but he doesn’t respond.
“Are you there?”
“David?” She’ll turn seventy next spring, and David will, too (They were born a week apart. They’ve figured it out: she was emerging from the womb at the very hour he was circumcised, the first and last Jewish ritual he ever partook of, which places him, she thinks, one Jewish ritual ahead of her.), and she’s taken to saying her memory has begun to fail her, though she knows that’s not true. Or no more true than for any sixty-nine-year-old—or for any adult human, for that matter. To have the memory of an infant, a toddler. She recalls Clarissa at ten months, those first stabs at language, how she resolved right then to teach her daughter French and German, to do it while it was still possible. She felt the same with Lily and Noelle, and again a few years later when Leo was born. She spent her junior year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and David spent his junior year in Düsseldorf. Her French was rusty by the time the children were born, and David’s German was rusty, too, but it was worth a try, wasn’t it, she said, and she still had her Berlitz tapes. And David, who in those days was still inclined to indulge her, allowed her to convince him to embark on a summer experiment; she would speak French to Clarissa and he would speak German. Two junior years abroad between them, one set of Berlitz tapes: the experiment lasted a week, the two of them speaking to baby Clarissa in their bad French and bad German until it became obvious to Marilyn what should have been obvious to her all along, that their daughter wasn’t going to be trilingual; she was going to be mute, a wolf-child.
She remembers now. A sweater. She stands in front of their old closet, and there they are: David’s shirts pressed and starched and evenly spaced, the shoes lined up in pairs, the sweaters folded in piles, next to them hanging a single brown cardigan. For a second she feels like a voyeur, looking in on a life that’s no longer hers, and as she reaches out to grab the cardigan her hand shakes.
She heads back downstairs, and when she reaches the landing she calls out again, but he still doesn’t respond. For an instant she panics: has he run off?
“I was calling you,” she says. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I guess not.” David is out on the porch, reading the Times, reclined on one of their old lawn chairs. His legs stick out in front of him; he taps his feet against the edge of the chair.
“I got you this.” She hands him the cardigan, which he takes obediently, but now he’s just laid it folded across his lap.
“You said you were cold.”
“Did I?” His gaze is far off, tunneling past her.
He looks pale, she thinks. He’s wearing a red button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he inhabits it so loosely that it billows around him like a pastry puff. He looks as if he’s lost weight. He has lost weight. So has she. They haven’t eaten much, either of them, this past year.
A mosquito lands on his neck. She swats at it, and he flinches. “A bug,” she says.
A firefly alights on one of her tulips, and another one, casting the garden in a sputter of light. “The girls will be arriving soon.”
“Not for another twenty-four hours.”
“That’s soon enough.”
Another mosquito lands on him.
“The bugs love you,” she says. “Remember how we used to say that to the kids? Mornings before summer camp and we were coating them in Calamine? The mosquitoes loved Leo most of all.”
She knows what he’s thinking. That memory is selective, even in small matters like this one. But it’s true, she thinks. Leo was the most bit-up of the kids. The bugs found him the sweetest, as did she.
He rises from his chair. “I need to get a haircut.”
“David, it’s nine o’clock at night.”
“I mean tomorrow,” he says, all impatience. “I’ll go into town before the girls arrive.” He checks his reflection in the porch window. He’s patting down his hair, straightening out his shirt collar as if he has somewhere to go.
“You look good,” she says. “Handsome.” He still has a full head of hair, though it’s grown silver over the years. When, she wonders, did this happen? It’s taken place so slowly she hasn’t noticed it at all.
She’s sitting in a lawn chair, and she turns away from him. It’s been a year since Leo died, and on the teak garden table, pressed beneath a mound of books, sits a pile of programs for the memorial. There will be a service at the Lenox Community Center; then they’ll go to the cemetery for the unveiling.
“You changed into tennis shorts,” he says.
“I was thinking of hitting some balls.”
“The court is lit.”
He shrugs, then goes back to the Times. He skims the editorial page, the letters, and now he’s on to the arts. He folds the paper like origami, over and over on itself.
She steps off the porch and disappears into the garden. She continues along the stone path, which winds past the bushes to where their tennis court lies. The garage is next to it, and as she steps inside and flips on the court lights, the clays gets flooded in a pond of illumination.
She stands at the baseline with a bucket of balls, another bucket waiting in the garage behind her. She’s in her shorts and an indigo tank top, her sneakers laced tightly, her hair tied back, though a few strands have come loose in the nighttime heat. She breathes slowly, in and out. She hits serve after serve into the empty opponent’s court, taking something off the second serve, putting more spin on it, then returning to her first serve, hitting one ace after another. She serves into the deuce court and the ad court and the deuce court again. She empties one bucket of balls, and now she returns with the other bucket. Occasionally when she serves, her ball hits another ball lying on the clay, and they bounce off each other. There are a hundred and fifty tennis balls now, maybe two hundred, the court covered in fuzz the color of lime. Sweat drips down her forehead and singes her eyes. She simply leaves the balls lying there and returns to the house.
“Did you get it out of your system?”
She doesn’t respond.
“So this is it,” he says.
It is. After forty-two years of marriage, she’s leaving him. At least that’s how David puts it—how he will put it, no doubt, when they tell the girls. And it’s true in a way: she was the one who finally decided she couldn’t go on like this. A week ago she asked him for a trial separation. She hates that term. As if she’s standing in front of a judge and lawyers, a jury of her peers. When she made her announcement, David said he wanted to give it another shot, but they’ve been giving it shot after shot for a year now and she has no more left in her. There are days when they don’t talk at all. She has reminded him of the statistics, what happens to a marriage when you lose a child. Eighty percent, she’s heard, maybe even ninety. Why should this surprise people? Already it’s 50 percent when nothing obvious has gone wrong. But David doesn’t want to hear statistics, and, truth be told, neither does she.
Another copy of the program lies forlornly on the porch. They’re everywhere, it seems, strewn randomly about the house. She picks one up from the steps. Leo’s photograph is across the cover, his curls corkscrewing out just like David’s, and beneath the photo are the words APRIL 10, 1972–JULY 4, 2004. At the bottom of the page is a poem by William Butler Yeats.
When she told David of her plans, he wanted to call the girls immediately. He wanted to call Thisbe too. It seemed only fair, he said; Thisbe and Calder would be flying in from California. But she refused to let him call. She wanted to tell everyone in person, and to wait until after the memorial was over. But the real reason—she has only half admitted this, even to herself—is that she fears if David told the girls no one would come. It would serve them right, David says; she half suspects he wants to cancel himself. How can they have the memorial, David wants to know, when this is happening? But she disagrees. David thinks, How can they do this? and she thinks, How can they not?
Now, in the kitchen, she finds him on his hands and knees, taking a box cutter to four large packing boxes. He makes a single sharp motion down the center of each box. His back is to her; he looks as if he’s searching for contraband. “Do you need help?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer her.
The boxes are open now, gutted of their contents; a single Styrofoam peanut has flown out of the packing and skittered like a bug across the floor.
“The Williams Sonoma kosher special?”
He doesn’t respond.
“What’s the damage? A couple thousand dollars? More?”
David glances at the receipt, which is perched on the butcher-block table at the center of the room, lying in a bed of Styrofoam. “More or less.”
“Oh, well,” she says. “We can afford it.”
“You said you thought it was money well spent.”
The contents of the boxes (plates and bowls, cutlery, serving dishes, pans and pots, a few extras that David insisted on, including a set of bowls for the children with famous sports figures on them—they’re sports fiends, the grandchildren) have been purchased so that Noelle, Amram, and their four boys can eat in their house. Noelle won’t eat off nonkosher dishes, even if those dishes belong to her parents. Especially, Marilyn sometimes thinks, if those dishes belong to her parents. Noelle and Amram live in Jerusalem and they visit at most once a year, so the dishes won’t get much use. It’s one of the many reasons Marilyn has been loath to buy them. But David has been lobbying for them for years; he thinks of them as a peace offering.
“A plate for me, a plate for you?” She’s doing her best to make light of this.
He doesn’t respond.
“Noelle will still come visit,” she says. “Nothing has to change about that.” Nothing has to change about anything, she wants to say, but she knows that’s absurd.
She has found a rental on the Upper West Side, a two-bedroom in one of those all-services monstrosities, with a gym and a pool, a concierge, a playroom (it will be good for the grandchildren, she thinks), a party room, all the things she could want and a lot of things she couldn’t. It’s eleven blocks from David, which means they could run into each other grocery shopping, though in New York you can go for months without running into your own next-door neighbor. For a while, she thought it would be better to move to another neighborhood (she even considered moving to Brooklyn—Clarissa and Nathaniel live there, so she could be nearby), but except for those few years when the girls were in high school and the family decamped to Westchester, she has spent her whole adult life on the Upper West Side. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. And the apartment opened up suddenly and the lease is month to month, so it will be a good place to figure out what comes next. It’s the house in Lenox that makes her heart quicken. Will she be allowed to come back here? Will she allow herself? She and David have been coming to the Berkshires summer after summer for forty years now.
“You checked the food?”
David nods. “Everything’s certified kosher.”
“Are you sure?”
More Styrofoam peanuts are strewn across the floor, including one that has lodged itself under the fridge, which Marilyn stabs at with a fork. Now she’s standing with David amidst the wreckage, and beside it all sits the bubble wrap unfurled like a runner across the length of the room. “We bought a whole kitchen,” she says. “No spatula left unturned.”
David gives her a tired smile.
“Are we supposed to bless them?” she says darkly. “Is that what
“Christen them?” David says.
She laughs, as she knows she’s supposed to, and it feels good to laugh with David. For a moment there’s a lightness between them, as if a screen has been lifted.
When David finds her a few minutes later, she’s seated in the alcove that adjoins the living room, typing on the computer. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“What?” he says.
“There she goes again. Writing another op-ed about the war.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You could say you miss him.”
“Of course I miss him.”
“It’s been a year since he died, for God’s sake. And, yes, I know writing these things won’t bring him back, but I don’t care.” She doesn’t care, either, that she has become a mascot for the left and everyone thinks of her as the mother of the dead journalist. Because that’s what she is. It’s what David is, too: the father of the dead journalist. It’s all they’re ever going to be.
In the kitchen now, he prepares a citrus marinade for the chicken. He has chosen the menu: white gazpacho, caramelized leeks and endive, marinated chicken thighs, jalapeño-lime corn on the cob, pasta salad. They will also have watermelon slushies. At the moment, though, he’s chopping vegetables. The year before Leo died, when he retired after thirty-nine years of teaching high school English, David took a course consecrated to the very subject, five Sundays running at the 92nd Street Y. Slicing and Dicing 101, Marilyn called it; it was evidence, she believed, that he had too much time on his hands.
Though there’s certainly a technique, as he demonstrates now, the way he keeps his knife always on the cutting board, only his wrist moving. That’s all there is these days, just the sound of David when she comes home from work, cutting vegetables in their kitchen on Riverside Drive, the sound of him here too, in Lenox, her husband chopping vegetables. She thinks how hard it’s going to be, living on her own, how she has brought this on herself, the solitude, the silence, and now, when she’s alone, as if in preparation for what’s to come, she has begun to turn on the radio and she listens to music she doesn’t care for, just to hear a sound in the room.
The phone rings, but when she goes to answer it, the person has hung up. She has a brief, paranoid thought that someone is following her. A trickle of sweat makes its way down her spine. She opens the kitchen window, but it’s just as warm outside as it is in the house, so she closes the window again. Her heart still beats fast from hitting those tennis balls. She smacked one of the balls as hard as she could, clear over the fence and past the neighbor’s property. She did it for the fun of it, but it wasn’t fun. She feels the energy funnel out of her, wrung from her as if from a sponge. Sometimes she feels as if she could die, that she’d like to die; it would be better that way. “He used to walk around with his laces undone. Remember? It was like he was daring you to step on them.”
“What do you mean who?” Because in her life there is nobody else. And because for David there has been somebody else (there have been their girls; there have been his hobbies—he has taken up running and become devoted to opera; he stays up late poring over librettos—there has been this relentless chopping of vegetables), because he’s been trying to make the best of an unspeakable situation, she hasn’t been able to abide him. Is that why she’s leaving him? All she knows is she’s so very very tired. She looks at him once more and feels the rage burble inside her.
Onions, scallions, leeks, endive, cucumbers, jalapeño: he chops them all. It looks like a trash heap, like volcanic ash. Always the reasonable one. For years she counted on him to be like that. Now it assails her.
“Did you call your mother?” she asks.
“You didn’t tell her, did you?” That was their agreement—the agreement, at least, that she extracted from him. No one is to know until after the memorial.
“No,” he says sharply. “I didn’t.”
“Then what did you two talk about?”
“Nothing,” he says. “She’s a woman of few words, Marilyn.”
“So what were her few words?”
“She’s not coming.”
“Are you serious?” And she thinks: you told her not to come, didn’t you? Except, she realizes, she’s actually said those words.
“My mother’s been through a lot. Do you blame her for not wanting to go through it again? She’s ninety-four years old.”
“I know how old she is.”
“She’s ninety-four, and she’ll live to a hundred and forty. She has a stronger constitution than any of us.”
She’s washing the dishes now, going at them furiously, while David is still chopping behind her, the percussive sound of him. He presses down hard on a carrot, and the top comes flying off and sails across the room. “Jesus,” he says. “Fuck! I cut myself.”
“Is it bad?”
“Bad enough.” There’s a gash in his thumb. It looks shallow at first, but now, studying it beneath the sink light, Marilyn sees it’s deeper than she realized. She takes a wad of paper towel and presses it to his hand. But the blood seeps through, so she goes to the pantry to get more paper towel, and when she returns his hands are shaking.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” He sits down on the stool and she’s above him now, attending to him. She runs his hand under cold water. The blood drips off him and into the sink, down into the garbage disposal along with the vegetable peel and citrus rind, swirling around like beet juice. She comes back with tape and a gauze pad and bandages him up.
“Slicing and Dicing 101, huh? They should have flunked me out.”
She presses her hands around his, wrapping him in gauze, as if she’s taping up a fighter. “How am I doing, doctor?”
She forces out a smile. She’s an internist by training, but she did a second residency, in infectious disease. He has come to the wrong specialist. “You’re lucky you don’t need stitches.”
“Do I need them?”
“I think I staunched the flow.”
She guides him upstairs and into their old bedroom. She has him in their bathroom beneath the flickering lights, and David is saying, “We need to replace that bulb. And the mirror,” he adds. “It has a crack in it. Hairline fracture.”
But she’s focused only on the task at hand, urging him to remain still. She takes off the bandage, which is shot through with blood, and wraps his hand again.
You’re as good as new, she wants to say, but her breath catches on the words. They’re out of the bathroom, and now David, in his white gym socks, is sitting on their old bed; tentatively, she settles herself beside him. One of his socks has a hole in it, and his big toe pokes out, white as a marshmallow nub. Through the window, she can see the tennis court still dotted with balls, lumpy as dough in the moonlight. Clean up, clean up. The girls will be coming soon, and they might want to play. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m all right.”
“Time to hit the hay.”
She nods. At home in the city, they’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms, but this is the first time they’ve been back here, up in Lenox, alone together. It seems that David has claimed their old bedroom. Squatter’s rights. Though she, in fairness, is a squatter, too. She’s also, she understands, the bad guy here. David’s suitcase is on the floor at his feet; a shoe tree spills out of it, and a can of shaving cream.
“Good night,” she says.
He gives her a quick nod.
She turns softly on her heels and heads down the hall. When she comes back a few minutes later, David is already asleep. There he is, her husband, and she feels a momentary heartbreak, knowing she’s not supposed to be looking at him, that somehow she’s not entitled. But she continues to stand there, tears falling down her face. She’s back in their house in Larchmont, back in other houses and apartments, remembering hallways, portals, a domed ceiling high above the family dinner table, bedrooms whose configurations she can only dimly recall outside of which she used to stand at night quietly watching her children sleep—and later, listening to David breathe softly beside her, and she, a stealthy presence among the reposed, careful not to disturb the sleep of a loved one.
Excerpted from The World Without You by Joshua Henkin. Copyright © 2012 by Joshua Henkin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book and The World Without You, winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a Finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
A Conversation with
THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU
Q: Was there a particular event or idea that inspired The World Without You?
A: I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Q: Despite the tension and disagreements, the Frankel family undoubtedly loves one another. How would you describe the Frankels?
A: The extended Frankel family is, in fact, a loving one, but it’s also a family that’s quite varied geographically (the members hail from Berkeley to Jerusalem and everywhere in-between), politically (there are a couple of Bush supporters, as well as two characters who went down to Florida to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore), religiously (from gentile to secular Jew to Orthodox Jew), and—perhaps most important—temperamentally. Add to that the fact that they have endured a terrible loss, and you have a very complicated picture.
Q: Like the Frankel children, you grew up in a Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. How did your own experience inform your writing? Are there any characters whom you can particularly relate to?
A: I think a writer’s own experience always helps inform his writing, but the ways in which it does so are complicated and not always readily apparent, even to the writer himself. I did grow up on the Upper West Side, in the neighborhood where the Frankel siblings were raised, and though it’s true that my family is Jewish and shares certain traits with the Frankels, in most ways the home I grew up in was quite different from the Frankel home, starting with the fact that my family was religiously observant. My father was Orthodox, the son of a rabbi, and though my mother was raised secular and remained largely secular even after she married my father, she agreed to raise my brothers and me in a kosher, Sabbath-observing home. My brothers and I attended Jewish day school and went to Jewish summer camp.
Q: This book is written from the perspectives of various women in, or connected to, the Frankel family. What are the challenges of being male, but writing from a female perspective?
A: It’s a challenge, I suppose, for a male writer to write from a female perspective but no more so, it seems to me, than for a young person to write from an old person’s perspective, a poor person to write from a rich person’s perspective, or a gregarious person to write from a shy person’s perspective. I don’t see why gender should be a more insurmountable barrier than other ones. I believe good fiction can transcend difference, that it can take us out of our own experiences and allow us to inhabit the experiences of others. It’s what happens, ideally, to the reader, and in order for it to happen to the reader it has to happen to the writer too.
A couple of years ago, I gave a reading from an early draft of The World Without You, and I was reading with a woman novelist who read a section of her novel told from the perspective of a man. When the reading was over, she, too, was asked the gender question, and she said, “Are you kidding me? I spent half my life flirting with boys. I know them far better than I know girls.” She was kidding, sort of, but I think there’s a real truth there. In a lot of ways it’s easier to write from the perspective of someone different from you. We’re so close to our own experiences that we don’t see ourselves as clearly as we see others.
Q: There are so many strong personalities in this book ranging from Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew who arrives from Israel with her husband and four children, to Lily, a lawyer who goes to Leo’s memorial alone, insisting that her boyfriend of 10 years stay in DC. Are there any characters you are particularly fond of or had an especially good (or difficult) time writing about?
A: You have to love all your characters—not love them as human beings, certainly, but love them as characters, which means you have to take them seriously and respect their humanity and complexity. If you don’t, they won’t be real and you won’t be speaking the emotional truth. So while I could tell you that I’d rather go out to dinner with one than another, rather be stranded on a desert island with one than another, as characters, as my creations, they’re all equal; I play no favorites. The only thing I’d say is that I think a writer has to be careful with the characters who are more difficult human beings not to turn them into easy objects of derision—to complicate them, that is, as they deserve to be complicated.
Q: Noelle thanks her father, David, for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know.” What does she mean by that? What makes David such a likable character?
A: What Noelle means is that Amram has run off and her father, unlike her mother, isn’t going to reassure her that Amram’s coming back when he has no way of knowing that he will. And Noelle is grateful to him for that. But I think, consciously or not, Noelle may be referring to a broader trait of David’s—a kind of quiet self-containment that permeates his very being. Perhaps that’s part of what makes David likable. He has, after all, endured the loss of his son, and now his wife is leaving him, and he bears it all with grace and equanimity, even as he’s devastated.
I should add, though, that it’s not necessary for a novel to have likable characters. This is one of the great myths of fiction writing—that characters have to be likable in order for the book to be good. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. There’s not a likable character in the bunch. But those are some of the most brilliant, most affecting stories around. In fact, it seems to me that one of the pleasures of good fiction is that it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we wouldn’t enjoy in real life. The writer’s obligation is to make his characters interesting, complicated, fully human, not to make them likable. A complicated, fully human, flesh-and-blood jerk is far preferable to a dull nice guy. What I want my readers to feel at the end of The World Without You is that they know my characters as well as or better than they know the people in their own lives. If they feel that, then I’ve done my job.
Q: Leo, the youngest of the Frankel siblings, was killed while on assignment in Iraq. Is there a political message in The World Without You?
A: I think I chose to have Leo killed in Iraq as a way of illustrating how far-away conflicts have an impact on even the most privileged of people. I come from the same socioeconomic background, roughly speaking, as the Frankels, and while I know a lot of people who have very strong feelings about the war, it often feels at one remove. I don’t know any soldiers who were killed. I suspect the Frankels didn’t, either. But then the war came and touched them in the most personal, horrific way. However, there is absolutely no message, political or otherwise, in The World Without You. Fiction that has messages is bad fiction. Which is not to say that I don’t have strong political opinions. My father was a professor of constitutional and international law at Columbia for fifty years. My mother is a human rights lawyer. You didn’t survive my family’s dinner table without having strong political opinions. But as a novelist, I check those opinions at the door. You should be able to finish The World Without You and not have any idea how I feel about the Iraq War or any other matter of electoral politics.
Q: What kind of research went into writing about the war, and particularly about Marilyn’s activism as a response to her son’s death?
A: Not much, in the end. I had a clear sense of what Marilyn was like, what her political opinions would be in general and especially now that her son has been killed. And she’s certainly not someone who would allow herself to be used on behalf of a cause she doesn’t believe in. She’s exactly the sort of character who would publicly refuse to talk to President Bush. I see her as someone who all her life has written letters to the editor, and now that her son has died she has graduated to writing op-eds. I read the newspaper, I keep up with a number of political blogs, so I didn’t need to do any additional research to have a sense of what kind of political activity Marilyn would be up to.
Q: The book’s epigraph, “Things seldom end in one event,” comes from a short story by Richard Ford. How does that observation relate to your novel?
A: That quote is from Ford’s collection Rock Springs, which was very influential for me when I was first becoming a writer. And Ford is the author of Independence Day, which, like The World Without You, takes place over a single July Fourth holiday. I think a good epigraph captures something about a book, and in this case what it captures is that what happened a year ago—Leo’s death, that huge, singular event for the Frankels—turns out to be only the beginning. Because now, in the aftermath of Leo’s death, Marilyn and David are splitting up, everyone else in the family is reeling, and there’s still more to come.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: A trip to Hawaii, I’m hoping! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.
“Insightful. . . . Poignant. . . . Elegant.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A wonderful novel. . . . I just love it.”
—Anne Lamott, The Miami Herald
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“A keenly observed and compassionate novel. . . . Tenderness spills from these pages.”
“[A] densely detailed and touching portrait.”
“[Henkin] grounds his novel in both time and place, creating a living, breathing world. . . . Gorgeously written.”
—The Boston Globe
“Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.”
“Intimate and insightful. . . . Reminds us that families are icebergs, with nine-tenths of their emotions just below the surface, capable of wreaking havoc when struck.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Witty, poignant, and heartfelt.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“In the course of [a] long weekend, old and new tensions . . . bubble to the surface. It could be the plot of a Chekhov play or a Woody Allen movie. But on this classic narrative scaffolding, Joshua Henkin develops a painfully contemporary situation. . . . The skill with which Henkin explores the points of view and personae of his ensemble cast is masterful.”
“Henkin is a writer of voluminous heart, humanity, and talent.”
—Julia Glass, author of The Widower’s Tale
“Masterful . . . . Here are Tanglewood concerts overheard, fireflies, skinny-dipping, an intense tennis game, fireworks, jalapeno-lime corn on the cob and white gazpacho. Henkin gets all the details just right. Think ‘The Big Chill,’ family style.”
—The New York Jewish Week
“Pleasingly old-fashioned. . . . [A] warm-hearted novel.”
—The Washington Post
“A triumph and an important novel about America.”
—Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
“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. . . . 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. . . . Henkin is a novelist of distinguished gifts.”
“An immeasurably moving masterpiece.”
—Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers
“Henkin takes no sides in his novel. He simply presents his characters as they are, as they think, as they feel, how they interact and lets it all reveal whatever it may. . . . A novel for mature readers—those who like fiction providing insight into how people actually live.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[Resembles] Richard Ford’s luminescent novel The Sportswriter. . . . Wonderful. . . . Powerful.”
“The American family in crisis has long represented rich source material for writers, from Hawthorne to Morrison. In his deeply felt new novel, Joshua Henkin offers his contemporary contribution. . . . [Characters] leap uncensored off the page as powerful and fully realized human beings, rather than types. . . . Heartfelt.”
—The Miami Herald
“Marvelous on the solitudes that exist even within the strongest and most compassionate of families.”
—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad
“Gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. . . . Compassionate and beguiling.”
“Point this one out to contemporary fiction fans of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or the works of Rick Moody, Richard Russo, Philip Roth, and John Updike.”
1. Discuss the sibling relationships in the novel. To what extent have Noelle’s decisions been shaped by being Clarissa and Lily’s sister?
2. When Marilyn announces that she and David are separating, Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle are thrown into shock. Is separation/divorce different for children when they’re adults than when they’re younger?
3. Marilyn won’t let David tell the girls their news before everyone gets up to the Berkshires. Do you agree with this decision not to tell the family in advance?
4. “It’s been the hardest year of Thisbe’s life, yet it’s different for her. Marilyn and David were Leo’s parents.” What does the novel mean by this? In what ways is it different to lose a son than to lose a husband?
5. Marilyn thinks, “Mothers and daughters-in-law: such volatile, loaded relationships.” Is there something about Marilyn and Thisbe that makes it hard for them to be close? Is the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law inherently volatile?
6. Clarissa’s infertility plays a central role in the book. Originally, it was Nathaniel who wanted to have children and Clarissa didn’t, but now that they’re having trouble conceiving Clarissa seems more upset than Nathaniel is. Does this have to do with Leo’s death? Is infertility always harder for the woman than for the man?
7. Lily and Noelle have a particularly difficult relationship. Why is this? How do sibling relationships change as people get older? Are some siblings simply not meant to get along?
8. Marilyn and David bought kosher food and a new set of dishes so Noelle could eat in their home, but Noelle still won’t eat there. Do you agree with Noelle’s decision? In a conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to one’s beliefs, what should win out?
9. There are some very high-powered people in this novel. Nathaniel has two PhDs and may someday win the Nobel Prize. Lily clerked on the Supreme Court. Malcolm is a chef featured in magazines. Marilyn is a successful doctor. Amram and Noelle, by contrast, struggle professionally. To what extent do the characters in this book define their own success in comparison with the success of their siblings and parents?
10. Thisbe says to Lily, “Everyone who knew us says Leo and I were great together. There’s no love like the love that’s been erased.” Were Leo and Thisbe great together? How reliable is memory when someone has died? Do you think Thisbe and Leo would have worked things out if he had come home from Iraq?
11. Most of the major characters in the novel are female, yet the author is male. Does that influence the way you read this novel? Is it different for a male writer to write from the perspective of a woman?
12. Like the journalist Daniel Pearl, Leo was captured in the Middle East and executed by terrorists. More recently, a number of prominent journalists have died in the Middle East. The specter of the Iraq War hovers over this novel, and the book is populated by characters who have strong, often opposing political opinions. Yet the book takes place in the bucolic Berkshires, far from the center of the conflict. Would you describe this as a political novel?
13. Although Lily and Malcolm aren’t married, they live together and have been a couple for ten years. Why does Lily refuse to let Malcolm come to the Berkshires for Leo’s memorial? Does it say something about their relationship? About Lily herself?
14. Noelle thanks her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know.” What does she mean by that? What makes David such a likable character?
15. Amram, by contrast, is a more difficult human being. What do you think attracted Noelle to him? What attracted Amram to Noelle? The novel says that Thisbe “understands Amram’s appeal. He has a kind of bullying charisma.” Do you find Amram likable?
16. “Judaism, Lily likes to say: just another installment in the random life of Noelle Glucksman.” Later, Noelle tells Thisbe that it was random that she ended up in Israel and that she could just as easily have landed in Sweden. What role do randomness and coincidence play in Noelle’s life? In the lives of the other characters?
17. Thisbe thinks: “Everyone wants to know about the milestones—Leo’s birthday, their anniversary—and those are hard, of course, but it’s the everyday things that are the toughest.” What does Thisbe mean by that? Do you agree with her observation?
18. Gretchen’s wealth plays a role in this novel, and the family all responds to it differently. Discuss the role of money in the novel in general.
19. The book says that David “mourns for Leo no less than Marilyn does even if he isn’t bellowing it into bullhorns . . . In a way he thinks his response is more dignified.” Is David’s response more dignified? Are there better and worse ways to mourn?
20. When Amram finally returns after having been gone for two days, Noelle is livid. Later, she hits Amram in the eye with a tennis ball, and Amram accuses her of having done so intentionally. Do you think Noelle hit him intentionally? Whom do you sympathize with in this scene?
21. At the book’s end, where do you think the various characters will be in ten years?