Family and 'The World Without You'

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin is a compelling novel, an engaging and thoughtful exploration of the nature of family amidst the crisis of terrible loss. Henkin builds his novel slowly, introducing the members of the Frankel family one at a time, until all are accounted for -- and the crisis at the heart of their summer gathering is identified: one year ago, youngest son Leo was killed. Now the remaining family members have reunited at the family home in the country for a memorial in Leo's honor. But have they really come together? In fact, they are further apart than ever, driven away from each other by Leo's absence and by their individual quests to make sense of his death and their lives. Where can hope fit in, now that their Leo is gone forever?

Marilyn, Leo's mother, is certain that the hole inside her can only be filled from sources outside of the family circle, while husband David turns inward. Their three remaining children are at crossroads of fertility (Clarissa), career (Lily) and religion (Noelle). Leo's wife Thisbe has moved across country, distancing herself from everything and everyone associated with Leo -- but their son Calder is a reminder of the past she must make peace with before her future can be embarked upon.

Henkin makes each and every character real to his readers and their individual situations, no matter how ugly or thorny or hopeless, will resonate, if only for the human neediness exemplified. Angry or pathetic or confused, each Frankel is so undeniably human, so determined to make sense of the unknowable and to control the uncontrollable, that I began to care for each of them, and root for each, and forgive them their foibles, with the hope that they would forgive each other and themselves.

It is only when the Frankels turn back towards each other that their own peculiar and particular modes of resilience percolate and then activate, and finally coalesce, bringing a (hopefully) lasting comfort to a family too long wracked with pain. Resilience looks different in each and every one of the Frankels -- and each and every one of us -- and yet somehow, most of the Frankels -- like most of the rest of us -- will manage to hang on, hang in there, and even find their moments to shine, all over again.

The World Without You is a heart-searing, eye-tearing, and soul-touching novel about loss and resilience, family and individuals, and the enduring connections that bind us together, no matter how awful a wrenching we endure. The saga of family goes on and on -- and that is where hope fits in, in the encircling arms of those who remain.