Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is about the Frankel family, who have gathered at their summer house in the Berkshires for the unveiling of the grave of the youngest child – Leo – who was killed in Iraq while there on assignment as a journalist. The family, made up of three older sisters – Lily, Clarissa and Noelle – and parents Marilyn and David, is grieving, each member in his or her own way. Marilyn and David’s marriage is coming apart, as David turns to hobbies and exercise to dull his pain while Marilyn writes op-eds opposing the war and President Bush. Lily, Clarissa and Noelle miss Leo in their own ways, but they aren’t close with each other, and tensions between the three arise while they are together for the weekend.

If you enjoy books about family relationships and the tensions and passions they evoke, then The World Without You may be for you. Henkin masterfully depicts the many simultaneous reactions going on over the course of the long Fourth of July weekend, often over the dinner table. There are layers upon layers here, with flashbacks and childhood memories crowding the present day and changing each person’s perspective on the weekend’s activities as well as the other people in the house. Henkin is analytical and precise – I can see him mapping out each relationship on a huge whiteboard and determining how each one differs from the others and what makes each unique.

At the same time, though, I finished the book somewhat dissatisfied. I found these characters clinically cold and almost totally devoid of empathy. No one had any sensitivity or sympathy for the other members of their family. Their reactions to things like the disappearance of one daughter’s husband or Marilyn and David’s pending separation were totally underwhelming. This coldness permeated the whole book. I wanted to shake the characters, say to them, “How can you just sit there and not *react* to what you are hearing?” They were all so self-absorbed that they couldn’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand what the other person was experiencing.

Also, be prepared: there are fireworks on the cover of the book, but very few between the covers.

[I just read my review of Henkin’s Matrimony, which I read in 2008, and I found that I had written almost the exact same thing about Matrimony:

Unfortunately, Matrimony left me a bit unsatisfied. These vignettes are beautiful, but ultimately, the book felt almost skeletal to me. There were long gaps between plot points which were left unexamined. There were discussions between the characters – major discussions, such as confrontations over infidelity or explorations of sibling relationships – that seemed devoid of emotion, prematurely cut off. I kept wanting these characters to feel more, to express more, to explore more.

I am clearly predictable in my reviews – wow.]

I’m glad I read The World Without You, and enjoyed the fact that it was set in 2005, during those politically charged years of the Bush administration and the Iraq war.  I just wanted more emotion and generosity among the characters.

Thank you to Joshua Henkin for the review copy of The World Without You.