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Leo Frankel, a news journalist, dies at the hands of rebels in Iraq. One year later, his family comes together to honor him at a memorial service. The youngest of four children, Leo’s three older sisters, two brothers-in-law and a significant other, several nephews, Leo’s widowed wife and three-year-old son join their parents at their summer home in the Berkshires over a long July Fourth weekend. Each character struggles and deals with Leo’s death in their own way. Each has their own story and they take turns sharing the spotlight. There is no main character in this novel. Henkin does such an excellent job with characterization, by the third chapter, I felt I had known the Frankels my whole life.
Leo’s mother Marilyn is a physician who, since Leo’s death, has taken to writing scathing editorials for newspapers across the country, railing against President George Bush and the war. Her husband David is a retired English teacher who has found new interests in cooking, opera, and astronomy. The couple’s relationship falls apart after Leo’s death. Marilyn has decided to separate from David and she must tell her family the news while they are gathered together.
Oldest sister Clarissa and husband Nathaniel live in New York City. She’s thirty-nine and dealing poorly with infertility issues. Middle sister Lily is a lawyer in D.C. She’s in a long-term relationship with Malcolm, a chef who dreams of having his own restaurant. Lily is far too independent for marriage or children. Youngest sister Noelle and husband Amram, both Orthodox Jews, live in Jerusalem with their four young sons. Leo’s widow Thisbe is an anthropology grad student in Berkley and already in a new relationship with another man. The sisters once shared a close relationship, but have drifted apart over the years. There has always been tension between Thisbe and her mother-in-law Marilyn. What happens when they all convene under one roof to memorialize their lost son/brother/husband, father? Emotions surface and hidden secrets spill out. The pain of losing Leo remains as sharp as one of David’s paring knives. Will their shared grief draw them closer together or drive them apart?
Henkin writes The World Without You with fresh phrases, unique similes, and such creative word choices that the narrative pops. Malcolm leans over to kiss Lily in the smear of dawn. The television news plays a pastiche of the holiday. The sun unspools across the sky. Nary a cliché to be found. Beautifully written, poignant, and highly recommended, this book releases today, June 19. Henkin directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.