Sunday, August 19, 2012

"The World Without You," by Joshua Henkin

Female authors have, over many years and then with renewed objections in the past couple of years, spoken out about how male writers are still taken more seriously. In particular, they have pointed out that when women write about families, relationships, and other “female” topics, their work is considered less important, but when men write about those topics, they receive kudos. A case in point, they say (and I agree) is the novels of Jonathan Franzen. To quote Jennifer Weiner (from an interview in the Huffington Post, 8/26/10), whose objections to the high praise for Franzen’s novels for their attention to family I have written about before: “It’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book.” She also says that the big reviews and articles in The New York Times and other prominent periodicals tend to be about “white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach in MFA programs.” I have just read “The World Without You” (Pantheon, 2012), by Joshua Henkin, who, according to the back flap, “directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.” Bingo! This book -- very much about family and feelings -- has already been extensively reviewed, and since it just came out last month (and since his earlier novel "Matrimony" was well-reviewed), it is likely that it will be reviewed much more in the months ahead. Although I agree with much of what Weiner has said, for some reason I feel different about Henkin’s novel than I did about Franzen’s “Freedom” – I like it better. (Readers may remember my extreme ambivalence about "Freedom"; I did like Franzen’s earlier novel, “The Corrections.”) “The World Without You” tells of a family torn apart by their grief at their son/brother Leo’s death in Iraq, where he was a journalist. The family meets at their summer house one year after Leo’s death for his memorial service. Leo’s parents David’s and Marilyn’s marriage is suffering because they don’t know how to comfort each other, and each is going a different way. The responses of his older sisters Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle are each affected by their complicated relationships with their parents and with each other, not to mention with their spouses, partners, and children, as well as their very different relationships with being Jewish. Leo's widow, Thisbe, is there with her toddler son Calder, wondering about her future and about her relationship with Leo's family. The main focus of the novel is on the family and their complex reactions, interactions, and expressions of grief. But an also important although less emphasized theme is the unnecessary tragedy of the war in Iraq and of all the terrible losses so many families suffered (and still suffer) because of it. This novel puts a human face on those great losses.

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