Sunday, February 28, 2016

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin: My Take on the Book (BIG NEWS!)

Joshua Henkin 

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.
The girls women are such fabulous characters and as far as the sisters go, all redheads too!

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?
This is a beautiful book with a myriad of characters that readers will connect with. I came to know them, and so, to care for them over the course of the novel. Which is why I would love to see The World Without You as a film. Action films are good fun but give me a character-driven drama any day! The first person I'm casting is Jessica Chastain who I initially thought of, simply because she's a red headed actress that's red hot right now. I first thought Lily, then I realized she would be better for the more complex Noelle.  She was serious as well as sexy in The Debt, flirtatious and insecure in The Help and determined as all get out in Zero Dark Thirty. Right now I think Chastain can do almost anything and I can see her in Noelle's long skirts. With a little luck and the help of a good cinematographer, the mid-30's actress might even be able to pull off her teenage self.  I'm not sure about the rest of characters yet - and as my filmmaker son reminds me, the sisters don't all have to actually be red-heads ("Hair dye, Mom. Remember?").  Perhaps an Amanda Peet type as Lily with Maggie Gyllenhall as Clarissa.

Or Dianne Wiest?
Blythe Danner as Marilyn?
Marilyn who is 70 in the book will be a challenging and amazing role for an older actress; the dearth of parts for actresses over 50 being what it is.  Get me beautiful Blythe Danner on the phone. If she's not available how about Dianne Wiest, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, or Jacki Weaver? They're all in the right age zone.

Jon Favreau as Amram?
Richard Dreyfuss as David?

As for the men someone big and sloppy as Amram - sorry Jon Favreau but I'm thinking of you! Maybe Albert Brooks as David, Leo's dad and the retired high school English teacher. At 66 he's the right age. Or Richard Dreyfuss? For the pivotal part of Leo himself we need a thoughtful face ala Maggie's brother, Jake Gyllenhall or a Zach Braff or even James Franco. Those are my first thoughts anyway.

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?


  1. I loved this one, too...I would love to see it as a movie!


  2. Replies
    1. It IS compelling. Thanks for stopping by Paulita.

  3. As I was reading your review, Jessica Chastain came to my mind as soon as you mentioned the word 'redhead'! Yes, she'll be perfect! And, I think she can do just about anything now. Another gal came to my mind is Michelle Williams (not redhead but can always dye her hair). And for Marilyn, how about Barbara Streisand? I watched The Guilt Trip and found something realistic about her being Seth Rogen's mom. Thanks for intro. this book, sounds like a wonderful read... another winner. Hey, how about you adapt it into screenplay and have your husband make the film. Now that's an idea. ;)

    1. I agree Chastain is so versatile she can do anything! Arti I think you would love this book and I appreciate your suggestion that I write the screenplay. Ha ha! Although it is true that everybody in L.A. has a screenplay or two in the works or in a drawyer, myself included!!

  4. I haven't heard of this book before. It certainly does sound great.

    1. Family dynamics are just a joy to read to when they're done properly as they are here.

  5. More then loved this book. My book club cast it 2 years ago. It's a movie - no brainer


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