The summer house in Lenox, Massachusetts where Joshua Henkin’s accomplished new novel is set has a tennis court out back, a garden, and, on its interior walls, street maps of Paris, Kathe Kollwitz etchings and faded portraits of great-grandparents. Family history also spills out of closets, with sports equipment of earlier eras, a never-worn wedding dress (the engagement was broken), outgrown sneakers and spare flip-flops. It’s an old two-story wooden house with a mansard roof, all in slight disrepair, with the names of the Frankel siblings and their former boyfriends and girlfriends carved into the rafters.
The childhood bedroom of the family’s only son, Leo, has rarely been touched in the year since the young journalist was murdered in Iraq, on July 4th, 2004. “The World Without You” (Pantheon) opens on the weekend of July 4th, 2005, as the family gathers from New York, Washington DC, California and Israel for a memorial service, unveiling, and a few days together.
A lot happens in three days. The author of two previous novels, “Swimming Across the Hudson” and “Matrimony,” Henkin is masterful at bringing his characters to life. Family members are articulate, engaging, combative, loyal, well educated, successful, often familiar, not always likeable and deeply human. One of the three sisters has made aliyah after a promiscuous childhood and is now the mother of four sons. She has become religious and won’t eat the food prepared in the kitchen, after her parents have bought all new pots and utensils and kosher food for the occasion. An older sister gave up a promising career as a cellist and now works for a foundation, as she struggles to become pregnant; the third sister is a lawyer and decidedly childless. Leo’s widow, now a graduate student in anthropology, joins them from California, along with the couple’s toddler son. Two sisters are married, the other has been in a ten-year relationship; two of the four Frankel spouses are Jewish.
The parents, Marilyn and David, New Yorkers who are each about to turn 70, have been married for 42 years and have had this country house retreat in the Berkshires for most of their marriage. Since their son was killed, Marilyn talks of little else and spends her time writing angry Op Ed articles for newspapers. David enrolled in a course at the 92st Street Y in slicing and dicing, and finds some solace in chopping vegetables and cooking. They are about to announce to their children that they are splitting up, joining the high percentage of couples – as Marilyn, who initiates the breakup, points out — who divorce after losing a child.
Over the course of the weekend, family members meet up in different clusters, and conversations lead to flashbacks of earlier times. Several secrets are revealed. The reader comes to know the adventurous Leo through others’ memories of him.
Many readers ask Henkin about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan in 2002, but the novelist says in an interview that he wasn’t consciously thinking about Pearl while writing the book.
He explains that an inspiration was an aunt and uncle who lost a son when he was in his late 20s, to Hodgkin’s disease. The young man’s death hung over the family for many years. Even 30 years later, the pain was still raw for his aunt and uncle, while the young man’s widow remarried and started a new life. Henkin got to thinking that when parents lose a child, they rarely are able to move on.
Even though a character in the novel dies in the Middle East, Henkin explains, this is more a family drama than a political one. “I’m interested in the Frankel family, who have strong opinions about the war, but don’t know any people who fought in that war, and what it’s like to be mourning for a son killed in a war when they are otherwise removed from that war.”
“This book is very concerned with the relationship between past and present – and the ways in which the past hovers over the present, and, more broadly, with memory,” Henkin says.
He adds, “My own relationship to Judaism is very much about time and memory.”
Henkin explains that he grew up in a complicated Jewish home on the Upper West Side. His grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, was an authority on Jewish law who lived on the Lower East Side for 50 years, and his positions were widely followed in the Orthodox world. His father, Louis Henkin, was a leading legal scholar at Columbia University and his mother is a prominent lawyer involved in human rights. While his father grew up in an Orthodox world, his mother grew up secular. The author was raised in a Sabbath observant home and attended Ramaz, and grew to be familiar with both worlds, observant and secular.
Now married and the father of two young children, Henkin lives in Brooklyn. He heads the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.
When asked about the challenges of writing this novel, he says, “Most novels have a single protagonist. This is really a group book. One of the challenges was figuring out how to be in everyone’s head. Making the spine of the novel solid and compressing time allowed me to move around without the book becoming diffuse. “
“I never plan out what I’m going to write. As is true in our lives, we both create our stories and are created by them,” he says, adding, “ I’ve written three novels. Every time you sit down to write the page is just as blank.”
For readers who enjoy their summer reading infused with summertime, here are Tanglewood concerts overheard, fireflies, skinny-dipping, an intense tennis game, fireworks, jalapeno-lime corn on the cob and white gazpacho. Henkin gets all the details just right.
Think “The Big Chill,” family style. The idea of people who were once close coming back together is a popular literary theme this season, with Deborah Copaken Kogan’s novel, “The Red Book” (Voice), set around a once-intimate circle of friends at their 20th Harvard class reunion, and Anne Cherian’s “The Invitation” (Norton). In Cherian’s novel of first-generation Indian immigrants (with the American husband of one of them discovering his Jewish roots), college friends gather at the graduation of one of their sons, creating their own 25th year reunion. In both novels, past encounters are revisited, old and new secrets shared, life passages marked.
“On any occasion that brings people together who once lived together in close quarters, literal and figurative fireworks are going to fly,” Henkin says.
“What I want readers to feel at the end of the novel is that they know my characters as well as or better than they know the people in their own lives.”
Joshua Henkin will be reading from “The World Without You” and speaking about the events and ideas that inspired it, along with novelist Anouk Markovits, author of “I Am Forbidden,” as part of Jewish Week Literary Summer, on Tuesday, August 28th, 7 pm, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 West 83rd Street, Manhattan. The program is free but reservations are recommended, firstname.lastname@example.org.