Exciting news: I got an advance reader’s edition of this book! Why? Because I have at least two lovely friends who told Josh that my blog was a blog worth reading. I myself told him that I would gladly buy the book when it came out since only about six people read this blog, but he very kindly sent me the book anyway and made me feel like a legitimate force in the literary world! It was even better than the time that I awkwardly tried to explain to him who I was and he said he already knew simply because I’d been a student in the grad program where he’d been a teacher. One of the big problems with only getting to go to an MFA program for two years, by the way, is that there isn’t time to get to study with everyone I wanted to study with, hence never having the opportunity to be in Josh’s class. I have, though, benefited from some trickle-down Henkin-instruction. The last book I wrote about, in fact, Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn (which I loved, loved, loved) was a book recommended to me by two people who’d been recommended it by Josh.
It was funny reading these two books back-to-back because they are so incredibly different. Among the many aspects of Sweet Talk I admired were Vaughn’s carefully-crafted sentences and her wit. Most of the books I love, I love for these elements.
Joshua Henkin’s book, The World Without You, I loved for very different reasons. This is a book where the sentences–the craft of writing–disappear. I had trouble picking out moments when the point of view in the book shifted from character to character, let alone picking out a stand-out sentence. The writing is almost invisible here. Is this a good thing?
Absolutely! Here’s what it does: it transports the reader. I read this book, which is not small, in record time. It is a book I sat up late with and picked up before work in the morning. I spent the better part of last weekend on the couch with this book, but although I was on a couch in Queens, I felt like I was in a vacation house in the Berkshires over the 4th of July, getting ready for a memorial service for my journalist brother/husband/son who’d been killed in Iraq. I was immersed. Josh’s writing disappears so that the experience is seamless–you open his book and you suddenly aren’t you anymore. You’re in his world. Tricky word play would pull the reader right out and despite the sadness pervasive in this book, I’ll bet that when you read it you’d rather be in than out.
The dead journalist, Leo, came from an UWS family, his parents’ last child, born after three older sisters. The reader gets to know each of these sisters, as well as the parents and Leo’s widow, Thisbe. The characters I felt commanded the bulk of the attention in the novel were Thisbe and the youngest of the sisters, Noelle. She was the character who most fascinated me: a former wild-child who struggled in school, partly because of a late-diagnosed special need, and whose promiscuous behavior necessitated the family’s relocation to the suburbs for the kids’ teenagerhood. In a development that surprised everyone, herself included, Noelle moved to Israel in her twenties, became an Orthodox Jew, married and had four small boys. Getting to know Noelle was a privilege–what a strange, complicated girl. Seen through her eyes, as well as the eyes of her sisters and her sister-in-law, the picture was both complicated and clarified.
That is one of the delicious aspects of this book–the reader alone is privy to both what is in each of the characters’ heads and hearts as well as what they think of, and say about, each other. The reader becomes the one trusted confident in a tense household of people who love each other and yet withhold their full selves.
The magical construction of this book–how did the points of view shift so often, without being confusing, often mid-chapter?–impressed me, as did Josh’s incredible imagination. This isn’t fight-to-the-death, wizards and sparkly vampire sort of imagination (do I sound old and grumpy with that? also can you tell I haven’t read any of those books?), but it is imagination that creates whole worlds nonetheless. Each character in the novel–and there are many–had a fully realized past, present and in some cases, future. I guarantee that if you asked Josh to recount each sisters’ high school report card, he could do it–he’d know what each girl was best at, he’d also know where she’d have sat in a room if she had a choice, who she dated, what kinds of other girls she was friends with and probably what she loved to eat for snack. The details all mattered–these were real people to me as I was reading about them. So real that their small dramas mattered to me like my friends’ dramas do, or even like my own do. There was a big, important, political and tragic death at the heart of this novel, but orbiting it were many medium-sized tragedies (infertility, divorce) and tiny ones, too (bonding moments thwarted, feelings hurt).
There’s a real treat on the last page of this novel, which I won’t give away, but it is a leap that felt like a gift from Josh to his readers, many of whom, like me, were (will be!) probably very sorry to finish his book. It was a gift that let me imagine that these characters didn’t finish living when I finished reading them, but continue on, somewhere in the world.