Sunday, October 28, 2012

The World without You

By Joshua Henkin
New York, Pantheon, 2012
336 pages     Fiction

I read an article recently about people who divorce in their later years. The Wall Street Journal called it “Grey Divorce.” The article said that the more than 600,000 people over the age of 50 divorce every year. For many there is the feeling that “I have to fulfill myself now or I never will.” One researcher calls the reason for grey divorces “complex marital biographies.”

Marilyn and David Frankel in the novel The World without You by Joshua Henkin are in their early 70s when Marilyn decides she wants a divorce. Their family is gathering for the Independence Day holiday and as the novel opens, the couple is trying to decide if they are going to tell their children that they are separating during their weekend together. The reason for the divorce seemingly is Marilyn’s restlessness but we soon discover that the deeper reason is that they had lost their son Leo the year before. Leo had been a journalist and was killed in the Iraq War. Marilyn has spent the year since she lost her son becoming a political activist, attending war protests, writing endless op eds, and hating George Bush. For her, the personal has become political. Marilyn feels that David has not faced his grief, and she is angry with him for being so passive about their son’s death. 

The family is gathering at the family cottage in Massachusetts for a private memorial service. The funeral the year before had been a media circus and they all felt the need to do something more intimate as they raise a gravestone in his memory. 

There are three remaining children Lily, Clarissa and Noelle. Each woman and their spouses have mourned the loss of their brother in their own ways; ways that become obvious as their histories unfold. They are extremely angry at their mother when she announces the separation on the very first evening of the gathering. It is immediately apparent to them that this is all her idea. 

Leo’s widow Thisbe and her young son have flown in from San Francisco for the memorial. Thisbe is feeling guilty because she is beginning to move on in her life after this first horrendous year as a widow, and she feels slightly estranged from her in-law family, although Lily has been one of her best friends. She is the character I identified with the most. Moving on after losing a spouse is a challenge with a lot of guilt attached.

The most interesting character is Noelle, the youngest sister. She had been a rebellious teenager who married a high school friend, and they became Orthodox Jews and moved to Jerusalem. The mother of 4 sons, she returns home to the old rivalries and parental estrangement that caused her to rebel in the first place. She may be the most fully realized of the Frankel sisters and without a doubt the sister who grows the most from the experience of burying her brother.

As the weekend stumbles forward, all the characters are revealed and the story unfolds. The reviewer in the Boston Globe says: “In three days of togetherness, including the memorial and unveiling service, members will harbor secrets, tell lies, and rediscover themselves and one another.”

A simple story? Yes. A story that’s been told before? Yes. But I am not at all sure that I have read a book where the story was told better than this one. I became thoroughly engaged with the story as the family struggles its way through this ghastly weekend—burying their brother and accepting their parent’s divorce at the same time. And for the most part they don’t respond in loving and accepting ways. Even though the narration never flags, the crux of story isn’t in the narration but in the characters.

The reviewer in Commentary magazine says that few authors are as good at characterization as Henkin. He says: “Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does.” 

In an interview in the Huffington Post, Henkin said that the book was an outgrowth of some thinking he had done about parents losing children. He came to realize that losing a child (no matter what age) was different from losing a spouse. The surviving spouse moves on but the parent never can. I saw that happen in my own life experience. My in-laws were never able to overcome the loss of their son. They became old right before my eyes and it took years off their lives. I, on the other hand, was able to move on and eventually find a new life for myself.

As the weekend ends and the daughters, spouses and children return to their homes, Marilyn and David look at each other and realize that they ultimately don’t want to leave each other; that their history has bound them together in ways that shouldn't be severed; that their love for each other has weathered another challenge, and they are at peace together. In the final scene, David is deciding to ride his bike, something he hasn’t done for a long time. Marilyn goes out to help him. “You have to keep pedaling,” she says. If you come to an obstacle you just steer out of the way.” And then she says, “I won’t let you fall.”

I highly recommend The World without You. It will be on my list of best books for the year.

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