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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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Family reunion novel a ‘Jewish Big Chill’

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In The World Without You (Pantheon), Joshua Henkin’s third novel, three adult sisters travel to their parents’ Massachusetts summer home on the July 4 weekend for a memorial for their younger brother who died in Iraq a year earlier.

It’s sort of a Jewish Big Chill.

We are introduced to each of the characters slowly, in successive chapters. David and Marilyn Frankel, the parents, are having trouble coping with Leo’s death. The youngest of four children, Leo was a journalist working in Iraq in 2004 when he was kidnapped and murdered.

They are a Jewish family but very secular. David’s circumcision, we are told, was the first and last Jewish ritual he ever observed. Much as they are looking forward to the family’s reunion despite the solemn occasion, they also plan to launch a bombshell on their children, telling them that after 40 years of marriage, they are separating.

The oldest of the three red-haired siblings is Clarissa, a professor at Columbia University who, at 39, is trying to have her first child with her husband.

Noelle, the middle daughter, converted to Orthodoxy, a surprising move for someone who was kicked out of two high schools for her promiscuity. Now living in Israel with her husband, Avram, she has four boys, Akiva, Yoni, Dov and Ari, and has great disdain for secular Israelis. She caused a stir in the family when she refused to attend Leo’s marriage to a non-Jew.

Lily, the youngest sister, is a Washington lawyer who calls her four pale, blue-eyed nephews “Aryan Israelis.” She holds all 50 million George Bush voters responsible for Leo’s death, including Noelle, who voted from Israel.

Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and their three-year-old son Calder, who looks remarkably like his father, join the family for the weekend. Thisbe also has a bombshell of her own she needs to tell the Frankels.

Much as The World Without You is about this “get-together,” it’s really about separation – the distance all the characters have from each other. David and Marilyn’s impending separation, and Thisbe and Noelle’s alienation from the family, are just some examples.

Marilyn and David go to great lengths to make the weekend kosher for Noelle, buying kosher food and dishes. But Noelle offends them by bringing her own sandwiches.

The kitchen itself would need to be kosher, she tells them. “The oven, the dishwasher, the microwave, everything.”

“You’re kidding me?” David says incredulously.

The daughters bring far too much baggage with them for this weekend to be anything but a disaster. One evening, Lily berates Noelle for living “in your warmongering country, practising your delusional religion.”

Throughout the book, the author finds ways to bring two of the characters alone together in a sort of round-robin tournament. In one chapter, for instance, it’s David and Lily sharing quiet conversation. In the next, it might be Noelle and Thisbe. In this way we learn more about the complicated relationships between the characters and some of the baggage they’ve been carrying.

The novel has a great premise and some of the scenes, especially the memorial they hold for Leo, are powerful and moving.

But there is just a tad too much brooding and flashback that ultimately hold this book back. While they are necessary to flesh out the people in this character-driven novel, they tend to slow the pace to a crawl at several points.

The characters get together, they fight, bicker, resolve some issues and leave, but the lack of a major plotline will give readers a sense of incompleteness. As much as the characters in the book are looking for some kind of closure, so, too, are the readers left looking for one.

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Other new releases:

• Dolly Beil spent the years between 1927 and 1952 in China, living through the Japanese occupation, the civil war and the flight of foreigners from an increasingly closed and hostile society.

Growing Up Jewish in China (BPS Books) is her colourful and compelling account of coming to maturity in China and the difficult years she faced as a young mother. Her entertaining stories take readers behind the scenes of a China that few know.

• Johanna is a 14-year-old Jewish girl in 18th-century Germany in Anne Dublin’s The Baby Experiment  (Dundurn). Stifled by the daily drudgery of her life, Johanna dreams of seeing what lies outside the confines of the Jewish quarter. She lies about her identity and gets a job as a caregiver at an orphanage where secret experiments are taking place.

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