“I can’t imagine a world without Joshua Henkin,” gushes an author on the jacket of Henkin’s The World Without You. Me, I can’t imagine a world without editors, although we get a glimpse of one here.
When the time came to cut superfluous passages from this promising but plodding book, the word-weeders mysteriously vanished, raptured into the ether, leaving behind a novel that at times reads like an AAA Trip Tik smudged darkly with plot.
They pass Cambridge and Newton and are headed toward Worcester; it’s a straight shot west on the Massachusetts Pike.
In between the vapid travel instructions is a worthy story of a family in crisis. Marilyn and David Frankel sit at the head of a table of grief. Their journalist son, Leo, died a year ago, on the Fourth of July, kidnapped and murdered on assignment in Iraq. His parents have not weathered the loss well, and although they’re both nearing 70, Marilyn is leaving her husband of 42 years. They will tell their other children, three grown daughters (plus Leo’s widow), when the family gathers for the memorial service on the first anniversary of Leo’s death, a Jewish custom.
The sisters all have their own angst, a tangle of complications that extend beyond the loss of their brother. Clarissa, the oldest, is struggling with infertility. Lily lives and rages in D.C. with her boyfriend of 10 years; she is chronically angry — over the war, over her brother’s death, over George W. Bush. And Noelle, the last to see Leo alive, is doing penance for her promiscuous youth, raising four sons Orthodox in Israel.
Sisters, the late Charles Schulz said through his character Linus Van Pelt, are the crabgrass in the lawn of life, and these three are no exception. The author has brothers, not sisters, but he gets the sister thing, nailing icy and affectionate exchanges between the women with precision. Henkin directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College, and this is his third novel. He’s smart and knows what he’s doing. Three hundred pages isn’t so much. Why then, must this book seem so long?
They’re past Worcester, where an enormous pumpkin sits at the side of the road, as if waiting, derelict, for Halloween. In the distance is a sign for Wachusett Lumber.
Please, can we get there already?
To be fair, this interminable journey takes place early in the book, and if you can stay with it, get to know the characters, you might grow attached, care about what happens to them. But the fireworks on the cover illustrate only the novel’s timing, not the action; it’s a slo-mo story that longs for narrative explosives, anything to liven up the pace.
It is lovely in parts, though, this book. It’s like a ball made of rubber bands, the colors wrapped tightly and orderly, layered upon each other. And Henkin delivers many fresh and memorable turns of phrase.
Clarissa’s husband has hair “so straight you could measure something with it.” Washington, D.C., is “an entire city dedicated to making bad news and watching It spread like disease.” Noelle makes a change and feels as if she “unhusked herself.” An array of sandals, flip-flops and sneakers are “shoes of languor.” Maybe it’s a literary device, to bury the astonishing in the banal, but I can’t help thinking I’d like this world better with a hundred fewer pages.
They pass a road sign with a picture of a cow on it, and a few hundred yards later a pasture with cattle opens before them. At the exit is a sign for miniature golf. B- — Jennifer Graham