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The World Without You: A Novel

The World Without You - Joshua Henkin To mark the one year anniversary of journalist Leo Frankel’s murder in Baghdad, the Frankel family returns, en masse, to their childhood vacation home to have a memorial service and unveiling for him. Three sisters and their brother’s widow join their parents and return with their families to the family home in the Berkshires.
The moment is emotional, and each participant brings with them secrets and personal baggage which influences their behavior and individual reactions to each other. There seems to be a lot of sibling rivalry and a pretense of conviviality, at times. Although the subject matter has depth, the book has a light touch which draws you into its pages. It explores the different personalities of the siblings and their parents, as they investigate their individual feelings about their brother/husband/son, his death and their reactions to it and each other. Their memories open doors for us, explaining the relationship of each to the other. All is not harmonious, and there are hidden facets of their lives revealed through conversations and an examination of their recollections about the past.
Complete with an elderly, 95 year old grandmother who somehow aids in bringing closure to the events of the July 4th weekend, there are also political overtones and cultural conflicts. There are views expressed which may not be to the reader’s liking, they were certainly discordant with mine, however, the story is engaging and it will capture your interest.
How the characters relate to each other, often without the filter of mature judgment, reveals their prejudices and predispositions to certain biased beliefs. In an attempt to work out their problems, they often make them worse. Sibling rivalry is evident everywhere and marital discord abounds. In the end, a resolution is not always apparent and the reader is left to decide what will ultimately happen down the road.
The time is 2005. President Bush is in the White House. The family is Jewish and their politics leans far to the left. In 2004, Leo was killed in Iraq, under circumstances that seemed reminiscent of Daniel Pearl. They are together as a family, probably for one last time. Although they are united in their strong dislike of the President, whom they blame for his death, they are united in their deep love and devotion to Leo, which each views through a different lens. There is a void in the lives of all of them which is being filled in different ways and which we learn about as their conflicts float to the surface and we watch their efforts at resolution.
The sisters hold grudges against each other for past behavior. Each of their lives is being rent by the varied exigencies facing them in the present. One is trying to have a child, one is trying to make ends meet in another country and culture, one does not wish to be married at all but is in a committed relationship, the widow is trying to move on, and the parents are facing their own marital conflicts. Although many themes are investigated, it all ties together and the story is not disjointed in anyway. In the end relationships are explored from all angles. Often, expectations are not met and loyalty is far from a constant. Dependability is not a constant nor is common sense, but the problems and reactions are those that could be faced by ordinary families everywhere.
Except for the politics, which I don’t believe had to be as strong a feature of the story, I enjoyed the book. I do not like to have an author impose his or her particular political point of view on me or any reader. I do not think a novel is the appropriate venue to try and proselytize because it is a captive audience to which only one side of the position is presented. To paraphrase Paul Harvey, I would prefer “to know the rest of the story”.