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  • bethhewett

Unlikeable Me

I recently finished reading a book called The World Without You, which is a novel by Joshua Henckin (Vintage Contemporaries, 2013). It is about the Frankel family, a bereaved Jewish clan that had lost a family member the year before. Leo, a deceased journalist, died as an American hostage in Iraq on a project for Newsweek. The book opens with the family gathering at their summer home in the Berkshires for the memorial ceremony where they would honor Leo through eulogies, music, and the unveiling of the gravestone.

The family is sizeable. It consists of Leo’s parents Marilyn and David, who are separating after more than 40 years of marriage and disagree about the state of the marriage; Marilyn wants David to talk to her more about Leo and his grief, while David addresses his pain through exercise and cooking (actually, chopping vegetables) as a hobby. Leo’s three sisters—Clarissa (who has just discovered that she is infertile at age 39), Noelle (who lives in Israel with her Orthodox husband and four young sons and who refuses to eat the Kosher food on the brand-new plates her parents have prepared for her), and Lily (who lives with a man she loves and freely shares her anger over Leo’s death). Thisbe, Leo’s wife, and their son Calder also come from across the country; Thisbe struggles with how to tell the family that she has (already) met a man she wants to move in with and that she wants to return a sizeable financial gift that was intended to help her raise her toddler on a graduate student’s salary. Calder knows his father is dead but already cannot remember him as being in his life.

Professional reviewers laud the book as masterful, witty, moving, and poignant. Amazon reviewers rate the book much lower with words like interesting, tedious, blah ending, and many indicate that the family is purely unlikeable and egocentric.

They are all these things, especially unlikeable and egocentric. Why shouldn’t they be? They have lost a lynchpin in their lives. Leo is the youngest child and only son. He is the one on whom the sisters dote, each in her own way. He was the light of his mother’s life and his father’s joy. He was the love (and irritant) of his young wife and the first man of his little boy’s life. Leo has been dead for only one year; his death was massively public and highly political, drawing his mother out of herself to write numerous, scathing editorials about President Bush’s reasons for being in Iraq in the first place. The family has both ducked the press and courted it in the past year. They are mystified, confused, disconnected from one another, and positively livid at losing Leo.

What frustrated me about the book wasn’t the book at all. It was the readers’ expectations that this family should appear to be anything but shattered. Each in her or his own world, the Frankels clashed consistently. They whacked tennis balls hard across the court and hit each other with the balls if possible. They shocked each other with old stories best left untold and hurt each other with snotty remarks that didn’t need to be said—their looks at each other were sufficient to curdle milk. When the family grandmother and matriarch is brought to the Berkshires to straighten out the family (brought by Noelle’s completely despicable husband looking for praise and glory), even she indicates that she wants nothing to do with the place, with coping with Leo’s death, and with the family at large. Unpleasantness abounds in The World Without You.

Yes, they’re an unlikeable crew. Why shouldn’t they be, I ask again? Death is a pressure cooker. Alan Wolfelt once told me that grief leaves the bereaved with a high need to be understood and a low capacity to be understanding. Put a family in that pressure cooker and a lot of not-nice-stuff can happen. Some nice stuff can happen, too, but the family is a new family, trying to find its new collective identity among lost individuals who miss—like an amputation—the family member whose importance now is clear. I know this personally from my own family’s disagreements (and, dare I say, out and out fights) after a death.

As memorializing a loved one can do, the Frankel family achieves a small amount of peace and mutual understanding in the end, but they are far from healed. There is much grieving and mourning left for them to do. I have the sense that these are people who won’t run away from the hard work of mourning but who will confront it head on.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has struggled with grief and with the pressure cooker of family life after grief. Anyone who has lost a sibling will recognize himself or herself in the fray of fear for bereaved parents and dislocation of self in the family pecking order. Any parent knows that love makes it possible to tolerate a spouse after a child’s death, but only working hard together can help them keep trying to breathe together daily. And a young spouse, can she find peace again? Not quickly and the dead husband will always be in her life even if she finds the love and comfort of a living man who can also love her child. Even a bereaved grandparent might recognize himself or herself in this book, not wanting to face the pain of loss again.

When I grieve, I’m not terribly likeable. My sense of place in my family is threatened, and I don’t know where to turn when I feel totally bereft or miserably angry. I was happy to find a book that featured an unlikeable family. It gave me hope. Here is an author who understands the depths of grief. Sometimes we all just need to be understood and not admonished to straighten up and be more likeable.

People are complicated. Families are complex. Grief hurts. People hurt each other when grieving. It’s not a wonderful thing, but it is a real thing. With love and patience, we can accept and forgive the hurts created when in the throes of grief.

© 2023 Beth L. Hewett


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