The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s new book, is that rare breed: the twenty-first century domestic novel. Henkin’s characters, the Frankels – think Salinger’s Glass family, but more pretentious – spend the plot over a three-day period (it is, importantly, not a three-day weekend, as other reviewers of the book have misremembered) leading up to the fourth of July.
That this novel is a domestic novel and not something different, not something more, is a feat in and of itself, as the action surrounds and revolves around the absence of the lone Frankel son, Leo, a journalist murdered by terrorists while on assignment in Iraq. The novel resembles, in some parts, Richard Ford’s luminescent novel The Sportswriter, which takes place on a three-day Easter weekend, and also revolves around the death of an absent son and the resulting turmoil that death wreaks on a family.
In this book, July 4th marks the occasion of a memorial service, at which the Frankel family will mourn. There are the parents, David and Marilyn. David, who deals with his grief for his lost son in silence, in absence, in filling the absence with new hobbies and activities. Marilyn takes the opposite tack, writing screaming editorials blaming the President for the death of her son and hundreds of other innocents. Because of their conflicting reactions to their grief – as uncomplimentary as oil and water – Marilyn has decided to divorce David. “After forty-two years of marriage, she’s leaving him.”
Aside from the ever-absent Leo, David and Marilyn have three girls, each with problems of their own. Clarissa (Yale alum, in a long-term relationship with a tenured Columbia Professor with two PhD’s poised to win the Nobel of his field), works at a non-profit, lives in Brooklyn (where else?), and, at 39, has decided to have children. She is nervous that she can’t. Lily (Princeton, Yale Law School, Supreme Court clerkship, in a long-term relationship with a celebrity chef) is a public interest lawyer in D.C. Lily is angry about, well, a whole lot. She has a hard life, you see.
And then there’s Noelle. Noelle is what turns this book from a readable beach novel into something far more interesting. Noelle was a teenage rebel, an unambitious (at least compared with the other Frankels; there are no Ivies in her resume) and lascivious youth that suffered a transformation while living for a time in Jerusalem. Now she is Orthodox; she is married; she has a number of young children.
What makes Noelle interesting is that she is not only Orthodox, she is also real (in fact, she feels more developed than most of the novel’s other characters). Unlike many twenty-first century novels that incorporate Orthodox Jewish characters, Henkin actually understands that all Orthodox Jews are not the same, and (perhaps even more surprising) that Orthodox Jews can be conflicted about the lives they lead and still (gasp) remain Orthodox.
Henkin understands these stereotypes, and enjoys playing with and exploiting them. In a chapter told from the close-third-person perspective of Noelle, she thinks:
My sister the Hasidic Jew, Lily likes to say. The rabbi’s wife. Well, Lily can say what she wants to. Amram [Noelle’s husband] isn’t a rabbi, and they aren’t Hasidic. She and Amram both work, and their boys will serve in the army. They won’t spend their lives in yeshiva as the ultra-Orthodox do…Yes, she covers her hair, and she wears skirts and dresses instead of pants, and she won’t swim at the beach or pool when men are present…But don’t let anyone tell her she’s cut herself off from the modern world, that she’s placed herself inside a cloister.
In passages like these, you can practically feel Noelle arguing with herself. She doesn’t want to be viewed as an ancient relic, to be scorned and ogled and misunderstood. More importantly, she doesn’t want to be an ancient relic. She wants to, she needs to believe that her choices, especially the choice to become a ba’al t’shuvah (the traditional term for those who become Orthodox later in life), were correct. Of course, she can’t ever really receive that solace. In this life, there are no answers in that regard. And she knows this. Henkin, for his part, does a wonderful job of portraying Noelle’s real struggle to stay relevant, and at the same time to latch on to something that makes her feel human, that makes her feel important, despite her dearth of academic credentials and book smarts.
This is why the fact that this novel takes place over three days that are not a weekend is so important. Henkin understands Orthodoxy, and he knows that Noelle would be far less likely to make the journey to Western Massachusetts (where the bulk of the story takes place) if she would have to spend Shabbat with her non-Shabbat observing family. It is touches like this that make the novel real, and that ultimately imbue it with the meaning and character that make it powerful.