From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Matrimony ["Beautiful . . . Brilliant."--Michael Cunningham], a moving, mesmerizing 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.
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June 19, 2012
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Excerpt from The World Without You by Joshua Henkin
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 the lip of their bedroom and steps inside she's startled to discover she's forgotten what she came for.
She calls out to him, but he doesn't respond.
"Are you there?"
"David?" She'll turn seventy next spring, and David will, too (They were born a week apart. They've figured it out: she was emerging from the womb at the very hour he was circumcised, the first and last Jewish ritual he ever partook of, which places him, she thinks, one Jewish ritual ahead of her.), and she's taken to saying her memory has begun to fail her, though she knows that's not true. Or no more true than for any sixty-nine-year-old--or for any adult human, for that matter. To have the memory of an infant, a toddler. She recalls Clarissa at ten months, those first stabs at language, how she resolved right then to teach her daughter French and German, to do it while it was still possible. She felt the same with Lily and Noelle, and again a few years later when Leo was born. She spent her junior year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and David spent his junior year in D�sseldorf. Her French was rusty by the time the children were born, and David's German was rusty, too, but it was worth a try, wasn't it, she said, and she still had her Berlitz tapes. And David, who in those days was still inclined to indulge her, allowed her to convince him to embark on a summer experiment; she would speak French to Clarissa and he would speak German. Two junior years abroad between them, one set of Berlitz tapes: the experiment lasted a week, the two of them speaking to baby Clarissa in their bad French and bad German until it became obvious to Marilyn what should have been obvious to her all along, that their daughter wasn't going to be trilingual; she was going to be mute, a wolf-child.
She remembers now. A sweater. She stands in front of their old closet, and there they are: David's shirts pressed and starched and evenly spaced, the shoes lined up in pairs, the sweaters folded in piles, next to them hanging a single brown cardigan. For a second she feels like a voyeur, looking in on a life that's no longer hers, and as she reaches out to grab the cardigan her hand shakes.
She heads back downstairs, and when she reaches the landing she calls out again, but he still doesn't respond. For an instant she panics: has he run off?
"I was calling you," she says. "Didn't you hear me?"
"I guess not." David is out on the porch, reading the Times, reclined on one of their old lawn chairs. His legs stick out in front of him; he taps his feet against the edge of the chair.
"I got you this." She hands him the cardigan, which he takes obediently, but now he's just laid it folded across his lap.
"You said you were cold."
"Did I?" His gaze is far off, tunneling past her.
He looks pale, she thinks. He's wearing a red button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he inhabits it so loosely that it billows around him like a pastry puff. He looks as if he's lost weight. He has lost weight. So has she. They haven't eaten much, either of them, this past year.
A mosquito lands on his neck. She swats at it, and he flinches. "A bug," she says.
A firefly alights on one of her tulips, and another one, casting the garden in a sputter of light. "The girls will be arriving soon."
"Not for another twenty-four hours."
"That's soon enough."
Another mosquito lands on him.
"The bugs love you," she says. "Remember how we used to say that to the kids? Mornings before summer camp and we were coating them in Calamine? The mosquitoes loved Leo most of all."
She knows what he's thinking. That memory is selective, even in small matters like this one. But it's true, she thinks. Leo was the most bit-up of the kids. The bugs found him the sweetest, as did she.
He rises from his chair. "I need to get a haircut."
"David, it's nine o'clock at night."
"I mean tomorrow," he says, all impatience. "I'll go into town before the girls arrive." He checks his reflection in the porch window. He's patting down his hair, straightening out his shirt collar as if he has somewhere to go.
"You look good," she says. "Handsome." He still has a full head of hair, though it's grown silver over the years. When, she wonders, did this happen? It's taken place so slowly she hasn't noticed it at all.
She's sitting in a lawn chair, and she turns away from him. It's been a year since Leo died, and on the teak garden table, pressed beneath a mound of books, sits a pile of programs for the memorial. There will be a service at the Lenox Community Center; then they'll go to the cemetery for the unveiling.
"You changed into tennis shorts," he says.
"I was thinking of hitting some balls."
"The court is lit."
He shrugs, then goes back to the Times. He skims the editorial page, the letters, and now he's on to the arts. He folds the paper like origami, over and over on itself.
She steps off the porch and disappears into the garden. She continues along the stone path, which winds past the bushes to where their tennis court lies. The garage is next to it, and as she steps inside and flips on the court lights, the clays gets flooded in a pond of illumination.
She stands at the baseline with a bucket of balls, another bucket waiting in the garage behind her. She's in her shorts and an indigo tank top, her sneakers laced tightly, her hair tied back, though a few strands have come loose in the nighttime heat. She breathes slowly, in and out. She hits serve after serve into the empty opponent's court, taking something off the second serve, putting more spin on it, then returning to her first serve, hitting one ace after another. She serves into the deuce court and the ad court and the deuce court again. She empties one bucket of balls, and now she returns with the other bucket. Occasionally when she serves, her ball hits another ball lying on the clay, and they bounce off each other. There are a hundred and fifty tennis balls now, maybe two hundred, the court covered in fuzz the color of lime. Sweat drips down her forehead and singes her eyes. She simply leaves the balls lying there and returns to the house.
"Did you get it out of your system?"
She doesn't respond.
"So this is it," he says.
It is. After forty-two years of marriage, she's leaving him. At least that's how David puts it--how he will put it, no doubt, when they tell the girls. And it's true in a way: she was the one who finally decided she couldn't go on like this. A week ago she asked him for a trial separation. She hates that term. As if she's standing in front of a judge and lawyers, a jury of her peers. When she made her announcement, David said he wanted to give it another shot, but they've been giving it shot after shot for a year now and she has no more left in her. There are days when they don't talk at all. She has reminded him of the statistics, what happens to a marriage when you lose a child. Eighty percent, she's heard, maybe even ninety. Why should this surprise people? Already it's 50 percent when nothing obvious has gone wrong. But David doesn't want to hear statistics, and, truth be told, neither does she.
Another copy of the program lies forlornly on the porch. They're everywhere, it seems, strewn randomly about the house. She picks one up from the steps. Leo's photograph is across the cover, his curls corkscrewing out just like David's, and beneath the photo are the words APRIL 10, 1972-JULY 4, 2004. At the bottom of the page is a poem by William Butler Yeats.