A family dynamics novel, The World Without You
revolves around a memorial service for Leo Frankel on the 4th of July 2005. Leo's sisters, widow, and parents come together to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his death in the war. Marilyn and David's marriage is strained, evidence of the statistic that 80-90% of couples who lose a child don't make it. Marilyn intends to use the long weekend to let her remaining three children know of their trial separation, but the daughters have their own dramas to focus on. Clarissa is closing in on forty and struggling to get pregnant, which is straining her own marriage. Lily resents everyone in her family, seemingly just because. And Noelle's conversion to Orthodox Judaism and subsequent move to Israel has tested her family's patience. Leo's widow Thisbe also makes the trip from California, somewhat ashamed that she has started to pick up the pieces and move on.
There's not really a lot of new ground covered by this novel: friction between the myriad characters, the loss of the son, and the possibility of redemption. Henkin certainly writes great prose, but I couldn't connect to any of the characters. In many ways they felt cookie-cutter, as though their quirks and struggles were only skin-deep, built into the story only to serve Henkin's need for tension.
Noelle, in particular, I found completely obnoxious. Once a teenage harlot whose antics led her family to abandon Manhattan for the supposedly temptation-free suburbs, she's now so devoted to her ultra-Orthodox religion that she expects her parents to provide a Kosher kitchen for the grandchildren -- then refuses to eat from it. The comments about how she wanted to raise her children free from Santa Claus, as God intended, seemed almost over the top. She also made snide comments about Lily's indifference to marrying her longtime boyfriend and have children. I know she was meant to be abrasive in order to ratchet up the tension, but I never felt as though I could understand the extremity of her reversal. Meanwhile, Clarissa seems only to want to conceive because her husband was wary of marriage without the promise of eventual children. When we first meet her, she's begun to regret putting it off for so long that it may now be impossible. Her frantic desire leads her to insist on pulling over on the way to the memorial to get it on in a hotel room with a husband who now tells her that she should just relax and let it happen. Once again: meant to build the tension, but it didn't click for me.
There's frequent discussion about the need to like the characters in order to like the novel, and I am of the opinion that it's not always necessary. However, it is important that a reader be able to connect with the characters enough to keep turning the pages; at the very least, understand their motivations. I didn't find that here and it dampened by enjoyment of the book as a whole. I have no doubt that someone who can find those connections will also find more to enjoy in these pages.