Daniel Pearl, a Novel
Joshua Henkin’s seductive The World Without You transforms recent headlines into intimate family drama
Yet while Marilyn and David are the first characters we meet, and their intention to divorce hangs over the rest of the novel, they turn out to be minor presences. Henkin is more interested in Clarissa, Leo’s older sister, and Thisbe, his widow, both of whom are troubled less by the persistence of their grief than by the forward momentum of their lives. Clarissa’s sudden decision, at the age of 39, that she wants to become a mother is obviously linked to the loss of Leo, whom she mothered when he was a baby. This leads to some fairly familiar scenes of fussing with ovulation kits and the comedy of unerotic, dutiful, reproductive sex.
Thisbe, meanwhile, has already fallen in love again, leaving her unsure whether she still has a right to belong to Leo’s family. Her new boyfriend is named Wyeth, and her son with Leo is named Calder. It’s not totally clear that Henkin is trying to lampoon this group with their trendy, artsy names—they even live in California!—but the effect is to accentuate their difference from the more down-to-earth Frankels. At Leo’s memorial service, Thisbe gives a speech promising that she will always be a part of Leo’s family, but Henkin finely conveys her ambivalence, the way she declares it only because she’s afraid it’s not true.
Yet the most unusual and vibrant family member is not Thisbe but Noelle, the youngest of Leo’s sisters. In high school, we learn, her low self-esteem led her to promiscuity—“Noelle the slattern. Lubricious Noelle. Licentious. Lascivious. Wanton. Slut.” The psychological equation here is a little too pat: “Noelle … feels in that instant when a guy is about to come, in that moment of rapture that crosses his face, that everything’s okay and somebody loves her.” But there is something truthful about it, just as there is in the way that Noelle, the lost and wounded child, is the one who ends up moving to Israel and embracing Orthodox Judaism.
In a way, the Frankels seem to have off-loaded their Jewishness and all the questions it raises onto Noelle, just as the novel itself does. For a Jewish family living in post-9/11 America, and one whose son was murdered by Islamic terrorists, they seem excessively detached from any kind of Jewish awareness. Henkin never shows us the family talking about Jewish subjects, or Jewish or Israeli politics, or even mixing with other Jews—a gap that amounts to a failure of realism.
Jewishness is left to Noelle, who in keeping with her personality takes it to an extreme. Having made her way to Israel in her aimless post-collegiate wanderings, she bumps into an old high-school classmate, the hapless, not-quite-likable Arthur. Soon enough they are invited to a Shabbat dinner by a missionary at the Western Wall, and these two self-declared “lost souls” find themselves embracing the strictures of Orthodoxy. Now Arthur has become Amram, and Noelle finds herself the mother of four Israeli boys, shepherding them back to America on an El Al flight.
The introduction of these ba’alei tshuvah into the ultra-secular world of the Frankels leads to inevitable complications. Marilyn and David go to the trouble of buying an entire new set of dishes so that Noelle’s family can eat in their kitchen, only to find that it’s not enough: “The kitchen itself would need to be kosher,” Noelle explains, “The oven, the dishwasher, the microwave, everything.” Orthodoxy entails a politics as well as a lifestyle: Noelle, we learn, is the only Frankel who voted for George W. Bush, seeing him as a friend of Israel and an enemy of terrorism. “Lily holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” Henkin writes, a good reminder of the virulent Bush-hatred on the left, which matches the current Obama-hatred on the right. “With Noelle, though, it’s worse; she was Leo’s sister. You killed your own brother! she wants to shout.”
Henkin shows how the condescension felt by the Orthodox Noelle for her nonpracticing siblings is exactly mirrored by their condescension toward what they see as her tribalism and superstition. These tensions come to a head in one of the novel’s best scenes, when Amram hijacks a family game of Celebrity by writing down the names of Jewish heroes and famous rabbis. None of the Frankels recognize Yossi Beilin or Rav Kook, and Amram gloats over their ignorance, which lets him win the game; yet the whole episode reflects just as badly on Amram, showing how his Jewishness serves as a form of one-upmanship.
Henkin also makes some gentle comedy out of the way Noelle’s children, in turn, rebel against her decision to make aliyah. The 8-year-old Akiva, for instance, is obsessed with the NBA:
He’s happy in Israel; it’s his home. Yet he believes that his parents, in moving to Jerusalem, voluntarily left heaven for the false consolations of earth. It’s as if in making aliyah they left in the NBA itself, and so he inquires about their lives in the United States, thinking there must something more than what his mother has told him, that they’re Jews and they want to live in the Jewish homeland.
There is more to it, of course. Noelle lives in Israel because of the person she used to be in America, just as all the Frankels’ lives are determined by the absent past. The World Without You draws the reader into those lives quietly but seductively and confirms that Henkin is a novelist of distinguished gifts.
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