The World Without YouLet’s start with the title: The World Without You. It’s tantalizingly ambiguous. It’s unclear who is making the reference or to whom the reference is addressed. There’s a sense of pathos, however, in the phrase. It’s obvious that the person missing is significant.

This from a writer, in Joshua Henkin, who is not known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. Joshua Henkin is a cool customer. His fiction is distinguished by a refreshing absence of posturing or special pleading. JH cares. But he doesn’t throw it in your face or tell you what you should feel about his characters.

There’s an assumption behind that title also, a literary programme about American realism in fiction. The assumption is that reality is fundamentally interpersonal. Reality is people relating to other people.

I first heard about this novel two years ago. The premise was that it would take place during a single weekend. Now the wait is over and I can see how JH has handled it. The time frame may be very narrow but the cast of characters is very wide. At this weekend in the country I counted five sets of couples, all related, although not everyone is present throughout the entire story.

The relations are husbands and wives, parents and children and partners. Plus the memory of an absent son that the Frankel clan has gathered to commemorate one year after his death.

The gathering is in Lenox, Mass. Marilyn and David Frankel, she a physician and he a retired high school English teacher, both 69, have summoned their three daughters and their partners to a Fourth of July weekend at their old getaway homestead.

It’s the one year anniversary of the funeral of their only son, Leo, who was killed in Iraq while on assignment as a journalist. His widow Thisbe will also be staying over with her three-year old son, Calder. They have flown in from the West Coast where Thisbe is a graduate student in anthropology.

Youngest daughter Noelle and her husband Amram, together with their four sons, aged three to eight, have flown in from Israel. Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel, have driven up from New York. Clarissa disburses grants for international relief and her husband is a distinguished neuroscientist, rumored to be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize.

They miss Noelle and family’s arrival at Logan because they have stopped at a motel on the way. Clarissa is obsessing over having a child. That’s what the motel visit is about, an impulsive detour pressed by Clarissa. Nathaniel is trying to endure his wife’s obsession.

Lily, who’s a successful lawyer, has come alone. Her significant other in DC, Malcolm, is an emerging gourmet chef superstar. Malcolm has copped out on the family weekend with his in-laws and is at a beach in North Carolina with an old buddy from culinary school.

It’s a large cast of characters but Joshua Henkin could manage his own baseball team. I know he would appreciate that analogy since he’s such a big sports fan. He observes in the novel that no one can hide the character of their athletic ability when they’re at play. What you are as a physical performer is on display for all to see.

Joshua presents his characters that way. I read him as a people person, an extrovert and a born competitor. He gives his characters a level playing field and the reader gets to observe who they are in action. Yes, I’m slightly acquainted with Joshua. We met over a beer two years ago when he told me about his idea for this novel. So that’s my reading of JH based on a couple of beers in a very dark, noisy writer’s bar.

It’s amazing what you can learn about two people if you put them in a van together for a long drive into the country. Lily drives Noelle, with two of her kids in the back seat, to their parent’s place in Lenox. Even though Lily has promised herself that she’s not getting into a fight with youngest sister Noelle, it virtually happens anyway. Lily is totally secular and Noelle is an orthodox Jew. Noelle didn’t attend deceased brother Leo’s wedding because he married outside the faith.

Noelle would prefer Lily to marry her chef boyfriend, Malcolm. But even if she did, Noelle wouldn’t attend the wedding. Noelle can’t understand why Lily doesn’t want to continue her line and have children. Lily finds it ironic that she’s placed in this position with respect to Noelle, since her youngest sister seemed to set a record in serial boyfriends when they went to school.

And speaking of school, in a family of exceptional academic achievers, where almost everyone has an advanced degree or a distinguished profession, Noelle is an academic failure. Imagine not being good at school work in a family of professors and doctors.

Henkin tells a humiliating story about Noelle in school. Her teacher would hand out graded papers in order of their excellence. Noelle would have to wait, presumably ashen-faced at her desk, knowing that her paper would be returned last. Nowhere Noelle she called herself, going nowhere while her sisters Lily and Clarissa attended Yale.

I liked it that every state of partner relationship gets a full examination in this temporary weekend household. In one case, husband and wife both attend the family weekend. With another couple, both attend but one walks out. Another pair are not married but living together and one partner attends solo.

Thisbe attends as the beloved widow of Leo. But she has confided to Lily that she is considering moving in with a boyfriend back on the West Coast and getting on with her life. She’s afraid to breach this subject with Leo’s family, especially since the point of the weekend is Leo’s memorial. Also, one of the couples at this Fourth of July weekend will traumatize the whole group by announcing their breakup.

I haven’t verified my impression that every member of this extended family gets to spend some one-to-one time with every other member as well as meeting in larger groups. Joshua Henkin teases out every strand of familial allegiance in these combinations. And whether they are playing word games or playing tennis, the members of the Frankel family show you who they are by how they play their games.

Amram is humiliated during family word games when he can’t even guess the mercy clues that are tossed at him. He finally stymies the game by including references that only someone living in Israel would know. The most exciting account of a tennis match that I’ve ever read takes place in the pages of The World Without You. That match, presented in startling blow-by-blow physical detail, literally draws blood and defines a marriage more effectively than if we had heard the couple talking nonstop for hours.

The World Without You…such an eloquent title. Reality defined by who is present. Reality defined by who is absent. Isn’t that what’s germane? It’s all about who you’re with or all about who you are not with. That’s what this great breakout novel is telling us.

Josh Henkin rated a New York Times Notable mention for his last novel, Matrimony, which has been reviewed on this blog. I don’t know what the Times can do for him for The World Without You that would be better. Joshua Henkin also runs the creative writing program at Brooklyn College where he’s a professor. The World Without You is on sale June 18 by Pantheon.