Summary and book reviews of The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You

A Novel

by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 336 pages
    Apr 2013, 336 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Matrimony, a moving new novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy.

It's July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday. The family has gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings, an intrepid journalist and adventurer who was killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq.

The parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief. Their forty-year marriage is falling apart. Clarissa, the eldest sibling and a former cello prodigy, has settled into an ambivalent domesticity and is struggling at age thirty-nine to become pregnant. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer and the family contrarian, is angry at everyone. And Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew. The last person to see Leo alive, Noelle has flown back for the memorial with her husband and four children, but she feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe? - Leo's widow and mother of their three-year-old son - has come from California bearing her own secret.

Set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War, The World Without You is a novel about sibling rivalries and marital feuds, about volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, about the true meaning of family.


Here,” she says, “I’ll get you a sweater.” She’s barely done speaking before she’s taking the stairs two at a time, her espadrilles clomping against the peeling wood, transporting her down the long hallway. It’s July and twilight comes late, so even now, at nine o’clock, the last of the sun still colors the sky, but inside the house the corridors are dark and she’s neglected to illuminate the antique standing lamp at the top of the stairs as if to reflect an inner austerity. It’s their country house, but like their apartment in the city the hallway runs through it, an endless spine, which she traverses now, past the Kathe Kollwitz etchings and the street map of Paris and the photographs of her and David’s grandparents staring down at them on opposite sides of the wall from another continent and century. She moves with such purpose (dogged, implacable: those are the words David uses to describe her) that when she reaches ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss the sibling relationships in the novel.  To what extent have Noelle’s decisions been shaped by being Clarissa and Lily’s sister?

  2. When Marilyn announces that she and David are separating, Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle are thrown into shock.  Is separation/divorce different for children when they’re adults than when they’re younger?

  3. Marilyn won’t let David tell the girls their news before everyone gets up to the Berkshires.  Do you agree with this decision not to tell the family in advance?

  4. “It’s been the hardest year of Thisbe’s life, yet it’s different for her.  Marilyn and David were Leo’s parents.”  What does the novel mean by this?  In ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The World Without You. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Amram and Noelle, in contrast, struggle professionally. How does this affect their relationship with the rest of the family and their high-powered jobs?
I think that Noelle and Amran compare themselves to the rest of her family and find themselves lacking. Therefore, they tend to be defensive of their lifestyle. The rest of the family is more self-confident and do not need to do this comparing. ... - bettyt

Are there better and worse ways to mourn?
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, we all do it in our own ways. The characters in this story exemplify this. We don't have to like how they do it but boy they sure do it on their own ways - janen

Do you agree with Noelle’s decision?
No, I agree with most of the other posts. She sure could have found food to eat in this country. I'm there are kosher grocery stores in NY ! By doing this she kept herself apart from her family which she clearly wanted to be a part of. It also ... - janen

How do sibling relationships change as people get older? Are some siblings simply not meant to get along?
Siblings, being individuals, are going to have their own unique personality. And with any relationship there will be personalities that just do not get along. This is not saying they were not "meant" to get along, just that their personalities do ... - bettyt

How successful is Joshua Henkin at writing from the perspective of women?
I actually think he was great at writing from the perspective of women. The women seem to be more fleshed out characters then the men. That was actually a thought that struck me as I was writing. I thought he captured the feeling of siblings, ( 3 ... - mary annb

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Media Reviews

Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.

Entertainment Weekly

[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 .

The Huffington Post

Heart-searing, eye-tearing, and soul-touching

The Boston Globe

Blazingly alive. . . . [Henkin] grounds his novel in both time and place, creating a living, breathing world. . . . Gorgeously written, and as beautifully detailed as a tapestry, Henkin delicately probes what these family members really mean to one another. . . . [C]ompassionate, intelligent, and shining

The Denver Post

Henkin juggles [his] large cast of characters with ease, telling a poignant story while maintaining each unique identity. This is no small trick, as the characters are neither perfect nor perfectly unlikeable. They are, in the end, a family. They do what families do, which is a complex dance of happy and sad, of distance and intimacy.

San Francisco Chronicle

Intimate and insightful. ... In The World Without You, Henkin ... reminds us that families are icebergs, with nine-tenths of their emotions just below the surface, capable of wreaking havoc when struck.

New York Times, Malena Watrous

Editor's Choice Book: The World Without You definitely favors character over plot. The most dramatic event, Leo's death, has already happened. Set over three days, the book gives the illusion of progressing in real time, as if it could chronicle every scene, excluding no line of dialogue, juxtaposing the banal, the poignant and the pointed. Henkin rotates through his cast, moving elegantly from one perspective to another and providing ample background to illuminate the tensions each person feels in the present...Henkin excels at the female point of view — a good thing, since this novel features six strong and distinct women. (And hardly surprising, since any writer who names characters Clarissa and Lily better share some sensibilities with Virginia Woolf.) Henkin's prose is elegant but unobtrusive, always serving the characters. Although the cast is large, you get to know them deeply, like real people, and while they’re not all easy to like, neither are the members of any family.

People Magazine

In this densely detailed and touching portrait, Henkin shows how the loss eats away at Leo's wife, parents and sisters, testing beliefs and loyalties they've taken for granted. Intense and self-questioning, none of them thinks in terms of 'closure.' But you finish the book hoping these complicated, appealing people will find a way forward.

NPR Books

Henkin creates a powerful sense of each individual's hopes, fears and simmering aggravations, set against the evocative landscape of childhood summers. ... The World Without You gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. The most powerful and unexpected effect in this compassionate and beguiling novel is not what it tells us about Leo and his final days, but how much Henkin makes us care about those he has left behind.

Library Journal

[An] honest and well-paced look at an American family. Point this one out to contemporary fiction fans of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, or the works of Rick Moody, Richard Russo, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A novel that satisfies all expectations in some very familiar ways.

Author Blurb Julia Glass, author of The Widower's Tale
Rich, deep, funny, and wise, this is a sumptuous layer cake of a novel whose ordinary yet urgent dramas remind us that family is where it all begins. Henkin is a writer of voluminous heart, humanity, and talent.

Author Blurb Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers
An immeasurably moving masterpiece that tracks the intricate threads connecting children to parents, sisters to brothers, wives to husbands. To say I 'cared' about these characters would be to hugely understate their consuming effect on me.

Author Blurb Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
Witty, poignant, and heartfelt. The 4th of July will never be the same for me, nor for my fellow Americans. I can't imagine a world without Joshua Henkin.

Reader Reviews


Unhappy families
This book has a compelling sense of intimacy that draws you into this unhappy family right away. It is a story about the characters of a family who have suffered a devastating loss, but still have to go on living every day as if things were the same...   Read More

Jeff S.

A good book about family
I found The World Without You to be a very satisfying novel of a dysfunctional family. It is the story of a family coping with the loss of their son/brother a year previous in Iraq. The family is brought together by the anniversary of the death, ...   Read More

Becky H

The World Without You
Henkin, as in MATRIMONY his first book, is a wonderful writer. Unfortunately, I don’t know ANY of his characters. But more importantly, I don’t WANT to know them. The father is distant, the mother is self-absorbed. Clarissa, who has turned her back ...   Read More

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