Sadness unites Frankel family in Joshua Henkin’s keenly observant, compassionate novel The World Without You. A year has passed since the death of Leo Frankel, a young journalist killed on assignment in Iraq. Now his parents, his three older sisters, his widow, and their various partners and/or offspring gather in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where the family has spent countless summers, for a memorial over the Fourth of July holiday in 2005. But in the world without Leo, family ties are fraying. Each arrives with problems, secrets, or issues that have been kept from one another. For starters, grief has corroded the marriage of the elder Frankels, Marilyn and David, and Marilyn wants a separation.
I dutifully acknowledge Leo Tolstoy’s famous Anna Karenina chestnut about the distinctive qualities of each unhappy family. But I also propose that it’s damn difficult to make the basic unhappy-family novel distinctly one’s own. Henkin does so with a one-two combination of strengths: psychological empathy for his realistic characters, and an expository modesty that draws attention away from the skilled writing itself — no showy sentences here, no cadenza-like phrasing — in order to focus, with great care, on the subtleties and complications of familial love. There’s room, over the course of the Frankels’ three-day gathering, for the novelist (who teaches graduate-level writing at Brooklyn College and whose last book, Matrimony, was similarly menschy) to consider the pain of infertility, the strictures of Orthodox Judaism, the competitiveness of academic life, the strategies of tennis, and the sources of female teenage sexual compulsion. Tenderness spills from these pages — so much so that the reader misses Leo too. A-