The World Without You

By Joshua Henkin

(Pantheon, $25.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Joshua Henkin, who directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, has twice earned the coveted “notable book” designation: from the Los Angeles Times for “Swimming Across the Hudson,” and from The New York Times for “Matrimony.” His short stories have appeared in many publications, including “Best American Short Stories” and have been broadcast on the NPR program “Selected Shorts.”

What is this book about?

Set over the course of one long and drama-filled Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires, this is the story of a family trying to come to grips – and avoid coming to blows – over the tragic death of the youngest of its four children. That was Leo, a journalist not unlike the murdered Daniel Pearl, killed the year before while on assignment in Iraq. Now his parents and his three very different sisters have gathered at the summer home that is full of good memories to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy, to honor Leo and come to terms with their own problems. The parents, wracked by grief, are on the verge of divorce. One sister is battling infertility, another is full of anger and the third, who has resettled in Israel, feels estranged from her family and American life. Add to the mix a grandmother, along with Leo’s widow, who is a woman with a secret, and their toddler son. It’s a volatile combination that tests their will to survive as a family.

Why you’ll like it:

Henkin does a fine job of portraying emotions, using humor and sharp insights to tell his story through many points of view. He depicts the ways family members can get under one another’s skin, accidently or on purpose, in a fashion that anyone who has experienced such warfare will understand….and that’s just about every reader. Trying to figure out how the allies and enemies in this tightly knit group will shift will keep you turning the pages.

What others are saying:

The Washington Post calls Henkin  “a pleasingly old-fashioned novelist who takes his time in exploring his characters’ emotions and their fraught connections to one another. …What interests [Henkin] is the texture of everyday existence and the constantly shifting human relationships embedded in it: the slip of the tongue over a child’s name that stakes a grandmother’s claim, the collective solving of a crossword puzzle that infuriates a slower-witted in-law, a brutally competitive tennis match that unexpectedly reconfigures the family dynamic. Those who have resorted to such passive-aggressive tactics with their own relatives will laugh and wince in recognition at Henkin’s perfectly calibrated measurements of intramural jockeying.”

 “A family melodrama that encompasses both tragedy and farce, as an upper-middle-class clan gathers to mourn a dead son and perhaps move on. When conventionalists claim, “They don’t write novels like that anymore,” this is the sort of novel they mean. Yet the very familiarity and durability of the setup suggests that the traditional novel remains very much alive and healthy as well, if the narrative momentum and depth of character here are proof of vitality. … Which relationships will endure, which will collapse, and which will change over the course of a long weekend? A novel that satisfies all expectations in some very familiar ways,” says  Kirkus Reviews.

“[I]t’s damn difficult to make the basic unhappy-family novel distinctly one’s own. Henkin does so with a one-two combination of strengths: psychological empathy for his realistic characters, and an expository modesty that draws attention away from the skilled writing itself . . . in order to focus, with great care, on the subtleties and complications of familial love. . . . Tenderness spills from these pages,” says Entertainment Weekly.

When is it available?

You can borrow it now from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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