I usually don't write about books unless they have been, or are going to be, made into a movie. There's no word on a screen adaptation of The World Without You by Joshua Henkin just yet but I loved this book so much I'm just wishin' and hopin' that it will be. If you've read it, you know what I mean. Henkin has written an emotionally-charged family drama; strong and intriguing female characters - so interesting I had to double check his name and picture on the jacket several times to make sure he was indeed a man; hapless husbands, boyfriends, a passel of kids and the ever-present spirit of Leo Frankel. It has to be made into a movie. It has to be!
UPDATED: 2/28/2016 I don’t see it in the trades yet but have just heard from a good authority that The World Without You IS going to be made into a film. Damon Shalit (African Gothic, The A-List) is producing, with Dan Pulick writing the script. I’m absolutely thrilled!
It’s a good thing I'm old enough to know you really can't judge a book by its' cover. I probably wouldn't have picked up The World Without You were I basing my choice solely on the cover shot of fireworks against the black sky. That would have been my loss. I'm not sure what I'd suggest to front this beautiful and poignant book about a family coming together for a memorial a year after the death of the family's only son, Leo Frankel.
A journalist who was killed in Iraq in 2004, Leo has left behind his wife and young son, a trio of older sisters, and his parents so shattered by grief, their marriage has fallen apart. Most of the novel takes place at the family's vacation house in the Berkshires, over a long Fourth of July weekend.
Hence the fireworks on the jacket; and I now realize, a pretty apt visual for what takes place over the course of that weekend! What did I want; a picture of a cemetery, the Fourth of July parade passing by?
Marilyn and David are Leo's parents and, on the surface, respond to their son's death quite differently. Marilyn, a retired physician, throws herself into her son's death by writing Op Ed pieces on the war; while David, a retired high school English teacher, seems to throw himself into life, taking classes, joining things. It's an unbearable thought but if I were Marilyn, that's what I would do. Shout his name from the rooftops, hammer it home, desperate to keep his memory as alive in the world as it would be in my heart and soul. Mother love. David's refusal - or inability - to grieve outwardly in the only way that Marilyn understands, her way, is the breaking point in their forty year marriage. As a mother to a son, our only child, it's too painful to think about, to put myself in her place. I can't do it, I won't do it but I have a hunch I would be just as miserably pig headed as Marilyn in my devastation.
That then, is the state of affairs when the girls and their families arrive for the memorial. A difficult time under the best of circumstances and these are not the best of circumstances.
Clarissa, the eldest at 39, is frantic to conceive, going at it with her potential Nobel laureate hubby Nathaniel whenever her ovulation kit dictates. MLH and I married late, we had Russell when I was thirty nine so her angst over having a child resonated with me.
Noelle, the youngest of the sisters was, for me, the most interesting and volatile. A real dirty girl in her teens, she changed her ways, moved to Israel, got married and along with her husband, became an orthodox Jew. There's nothing like a reformed sinner and in practicing her religion, Noelle, in ankle length denim skirt and head scarf, is observant to the nth degree. The details Henkin includes about the family's Judaism and Noelle's Orthodox Judaism in particular are an aspect of the book that this WASP found fascinating. Practicing real estate in the Los Angeles area, I've been in homes where there is a Mezuzah outside the doorway to each bedroom and two ovens in the kitchen, in order to keep a Kosher kitchen. It's a commitment, to be sure.
Lily is the lawyer in the middle, level-headed (cuz that's how we middle kids are), private, in a long term live in relationship with Malcolm, a chef looking to open his first restaurant. This is the least dramatic storyline, just what you would expect a middle child to deliver.
Then there is Thisbe, the widow. A non-Jew and an outsider but the mother of Leo's son, Calder (a waspy name if I ever heard one), she isn't sure how she fits in with the family anymore. I found myself appraising her critically, laying down judgement, wishing that Henken had set this memorial two years out from Leo's death so that her issues would seem less selfish. Too soon, Thisbe, I found myself thinking, too soon. Poor Thisbe has to bear all my Gentile guilt.
The last lady to play a part in the family drama is Gretchen, David's mother; a wealthy, controlling woman whose presence makes itself felt as surely as Maggie Smith's Violet on Downton Abbey! Except we all love Violet; Gretchen, not so much.
Henkin takes his ensemble and much like a choreographer, flawlessly dances them in and out of suppers and tennis matches, hotel rooms and hallways, situations and conversations; each one revealing misunderstood intentions and hurt feelings nursed over time, building, as the family arrives at the day of the memorial itself. It is a hard thing when death comes and rearranges things, messes with our relationships without our consent. It's difficult to share our grief, to make known our loss. Thisbe and Leo's sisters do the best they can; Joshua Henkin captures the pathos perfectly and I found my own throat raw with empathy.
|Jessica Chastain in The Debt|
|Jessica Chastain as Noelle?|
|Or Dianne Wiest?|
|Blythe Danner as Marilyn?|
|Jon Favreau as Amram?|
|Richard Dreyfuss as David?|
Have you read The World Without You by Joshua Henkin yet? What do you think of my casting suggestions? Who would you cast?
I'll let you know as soon as I hear the novel has been optioned; in the meantime I hope you read the book. If you liked Kari Haut Hemming's The Descendants or Matthew Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook, I think you'll love this one.
Originally published 2/12/13. Now that I know the book is en route to the movie screen I’ll be relooking at my casting ideas. How about you all? Any new ideas! Are you as thrilled as I am?