55 reviews

The World Without You: A Novel
by Joshua Henkin

Published: 2013-04-09
Paperback : 336 pages
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It's July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. They have gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings and an intrepid journalist killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq. But Leo’s parents are adrift in a ...
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It's July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. They have gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings and an intrepid journalist killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq. But Leo’s parents are adrift in a grief that’s tearing apart their forty-year marriage, his sisters are struggling with their own difficulties, and his widow has arrived from California bearing a secret. Here award-winning writer Joshua Henkin unfolds this family story, as, over the course of three days, the Frankels contend with sibling rivalries and marital feuds, with volatile women and silent men — and, ultimately, with the true meaning of family. 

Editorial Review

Featured Guest Review: Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti is the author of Animal Crackers and The Good Thief, winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

Joshua Henkin is an expert at capturing the complicated dynamics and intricate nuances of family relationships, examining the bonds that bind and fray between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, as well as parents and children—first in his novels Swimming Across the Hudson and Matrimony, and now with The World Without You.

Set in 2005, over the Fourth of July holiday, The World Without You follows the Frankel family as they gather at their summer home in the Berkshires to memorialize Leo, their youngest son, who was killed while working as a journalist in Iraq (in a situation reminiscent of Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder in Pakistan). One year after Leo’s death, his wife is taking the first steps towards a new relationship, his parents Marilyn and David are on the brink of divorce, and his sisters are struggling too: Clarissa with infertility, Noelle (a born-again Orthodox Jew) with her identity, and Lily with the anger she is carrying over the loss of her brother. As the Frankel family takes their first, tentative steps out of mourning, each tries to find a new place in a world, while understanding that Leo’s death has changed them, and their family, forever.

The World Without You asks important questions: how do we move on after losing someone we love? And how do we love again? Joshua Henkin, that giving-tree of a writer, skillfully leads us through the ups and downs of his characters’ emotional worlds, understanding that moments of kindness can refill us with hope, and that family is a bond that can weather any storm.


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Discussion Questions

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 what ways is it different to lose a son than to lose a husband?
5) Marilyn thinks, “Mothers and daughters-in-law: such volatile, loaded relationships.” Is there something about Marilyn and Thisbe that makes it hard for them to be close? Is the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law inherently volatile?
6) Clarissa’s infertility plays a central role in the book. Originally, it was Nathaniel who wanted to have children and Clarissa didn’t, but now that they’re having trouble conceiving Clarissa seems more upset than Nathaniel is. Does this have to do with Leo’s death? Is infertility always harder for the woman than for the man?
7) Lily and Noelle have a particularly difficult relationship. Why is this? How do sibling relationships change as people get older? Are some siblings simply not meant to get along?
8) Marilyn and David bought kosher food and a new set of dishes so Noelle could eat in their home, but Noelle still won’t eat there. Do you agree with Noelle’s decision? In a conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to one’s beliefs, what should win out?
9) There are some very high-powered people in this novel. Nathaniel has two PhDs and may someday win the Nobel Prize. Lily clerked on the Supreme Court. Malcolm is a chef featured in magazines. Marilyn is a successful doctor. Amram and Noelle, by contrast, struggle professionally. To what extent do the characters in this book define their own success in comparison with the success of their siblings and parents?
10) Thisbe says to Lily, “Everyone who knew us says Leo and I were great together. There’s no love like the love that’s been erased.” Were Leo and Thisbe great together? How reliable is memory when someone has died? Do you think Thisbe and Leo would have worked things out if he had come home from Iraq?
11) Most of the major characters in the novel are female, yet the author is male. Does that influence the way you read this novel? Is it different for a male writer to write from the perspective of a woman?
12) Like the journalist Daniel Pearl, Leo was captured in the Middle East and executed by terrorists. More recently, a number of prominent journalists have died in the Middle East. The specter of the Iraq War hovers over this novel, and the book is populated by characters who have strong, often opposing political opinions. Yet the book takes place in the bucolic Berkshires, far from the center of the conflict. Would you describe this as a political novel?
13) Although Lily and Malcolm aren’t married, they live together and have been a couple for ten years. Why does Lily refuse to let Malcolm come to the Berkshires for Leo’s memorial? Does it say something about their relationship? About Lily herself?
14) Noelle thanks her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know.” What does she mean by that? What makes David such a likable character?
15) Amram, by contrast, is a more difficult human being. What do you think attracted Noelle to him? What attracted Amram to Noelle? The novel says that Thisbe “understands Amram’s appeal. He has a kind of bullying charisma.” Do you find Amram likable?
16) “Judaism, Lily likes to say: just another installment in the random life of Noelle Glucksman.” Later, Noelle tells Thisbe that it was random that she ended up in Israel and that she could just as easily have landed in Sweden. What role do randomness and coincidence play in Noelle’s life? In the lives of the other characters?
17) Thisbe thinks: “Everyone wants to know about the milestones—Leo’s birthday, their anniversary—and those are hard, of course, but it’s the everyday things that are the toughest.” What does Thisbe mean by that? Do you agree with her observation?
18) Gretchen’s wealth plays a role in this novel, and the family all responds to it differently. Discuss the role of money in the novel in general.
19) The book says that David “mourns for Leo no less than Marilyn does even if he isn’t bellowing it into bullhorns . . . In a way he thinks his response is more dignified.” Is David’s response more dignified? Are there better and worse ways to mourn?
20) When Amram finally returns after having been gone for two days, Noelle is livid. Later, she hits Amram in the eye with a tennis ball, and Amram accuses her of having done so intentionally. Do you think Noelle hit him intentionally? Whom do you sympathize with in this scene?
21) At the book’s end, where do you think the various characters will be in ten years?

Suggested by Members

How does grief actually motivate the characters in this book?
What do you think the characters' opinions of Leo say about who he might really be?
by katehoosier78 (see profile) 07/30/12

Who does the "You" in the title refer to?
How has a loss affected your family?
by ASilverst (see profile) 07/09/12

When is it proper to move on after the death of your love one?
Are you comfortable with the political stance of the characters?
The characters were written so perfectly did you recognize someone you know or knew?
by libsue62 (see profile) 07/08/12

Characterization. How does Henkin write realistic fiction that is also literary?
by sheepandstars (see profile) 07/08/12

How did you feel about each of the daughters?
What did you think of the divorce?
Who was the strongest character? The weakest? The most irritating?
by PattyLouise (see profile) 07/06/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Joshua Henkin:

I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. Still, it was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on, but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

Book Club Recommendations

by maril (see profile) 06/19/13
Some characters like the children should have been more developed or not mentioned at all. The sisters were confusing and it seemed the whole book was spread too thin and had too much.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Tonya C. (see profile) 05/31/18

  "world with out you"by Marilyn C. (see profile) 06/19/13

This story has been told before and better.

  "World Without You"by Carol Ann T. (see profile) 05/01/13

Lots of things to talk about with this one. Made for an interesting and lively discussion.

  "0 out of 10"by Marsha K. (see profile) 04/29/13

When we asked our 10 book club members who liked the book no one responded positively. Though the premise sounded interesting, the book did not deliver.

  "The world without you."by Marsha K. (see profile) 04/12/13

Our book club unanimously disliked this book. We felt the characters were not developed, we felt no empathy for any of them, in fact several of them annoyed us. It was the story of a dysfunctional family... (read more)

  "Our Book Club loved this book!"by marti m. (see profile) 01/16/13

The lively and deeply moving discussion by all 20 members of our group reinforced my personal belief of the subtle wonder of family and interpersonal relationships depicted in this novel. It is a very... (read more)

  "The World Without You"by Becky H. (see profile) 01/08/13


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

... (read more)

  "The World Without You"by Laura M. (see profile) 10/24/12

Well, it's official. I'm a Joshua Henkin fan. One of my biases in reading novels is judging male authors harshly who try to write from a woman's perspective. My standards are high but Joshua Henkin meets... (read more)

  "Our book club did NOT like this book"by Sheilla D. (see profile) 10/04/12

Half way through this book, I realized that it was not going to go anywhere. I guess that was the point of it, but the 8 ladies in my book club unanimously disliked it.

  "The World Without You"by Andrea L. (see profile) 10/04/12

Warm, moving account of a family coping with loss. Character-driven, slow in pace, beautiful.

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