When a summer house is not a home

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For city dwellers, the summer home is a place of escape and renewal, a place to strengthen family bonds. But what happens when a family heads out to the country not to relax, but to mourn? Joshua Henkin’s second novel, “The World Without You,” follows the Frankels, a New York family gathered in the Berkshires during Fourth of July weekend to mark the death of beloved son Leo, a journalist killed in Iraq. It’s a somber occasion but, like most family reunions, not without fireworks. Henkin, who directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College, spoke to us from his home.

When writing the book, did you consult anyone who had lost a loved one in a war?

I didn’t. The inspiration for the book, on some level, has nothing to do with the war but with a family story of mine. I had a cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late 20s. His death hung over the extended family for years. About 30 years later at a family reunion, my aunt, his mother, said, “I have two sons,” and everyone was very startled because her first son had died 30 years earlier.

I think the Frankels are the kind of people — upper middle-class, privileged people — who have strong opinions about the war, but [it] doesn’t really touch them in a day-to-day way the way it does people who have sons or daughters in the military. For the Frankels, the war was very abstract until it touched them personally in the most horrific way possible.

In the book, one sibling becomes an orthodox Jew and moves to Israel. Is the tension that this creates a reflection of real-life tension that can occur between reformed and orthodox  family members?

I think that it is. I grew up in a complicated home: My father’s father was an orthodox rabbi, and my father, although he moved out of that world and went to Harvard law school, became a professor and lived in the secular world, remained orthodox until the day he died. My mother is Jewish but grew up in a secular home … so I’m certainly familiar both with the secular Jewish world and with the orthodox world.

I just read in The New York Times the other day that the Jewish population in New York has gone up for the first time in many years because of the huge growth of the orthodox community on the Upper West Side. The Upper West Side that I grew up in was quite Jewish, but much more secular. … I don’t see a whole lot of tension on the Upper West Side itself, but absolutely, in the world right now, you see tension between the orthodox, conservative and reform movements. You also see people cooperating.


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