Baby, You’re a Firework

Take a big family, add in-laws, subtract one beloved boy: Watch sparks fly in Joshua Henkin's new novel.

You can lose a partner, Joshua Henkin opines, “but if you lose a child, how can you move on?” The author, who’s from a large Jewish family, lost a cousin to Hodgkin’s lymphoma when Henkin was a toddler. He vividly remembers his aunt starting conversations at a family reunion with “I have two sons,” startling everyone who wanted to correct her with the truth, which was that one son had died. “That’s where everything started and ended; it was the singular event of her life,” Henkin said. Meditating on the family dynamic rather than the loss of one individual member, he wanted to write “a different kind of book,” and while rereading favorite novels like The Ice Storm, The Corrections, and Independence Day, he began to formulate his third novel. The World Without You is a soul-searching meditation on the inner-workings of family, whose ending, happy or not, Henkin will happily debate at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Thursday, July 12.

In real-time, the novel takes place over one long Fourth of July weekend at the Frankel family’s summer home in the Berkshires, but in flashback spans the lifetime of Leo, a journalist who was killed the year prior while covering the war in Iraq. “One of the challenges is you have to rely on flashback a lot, and it was an issue of weaving in the past without slowing down the forward movement,” Henkin explained. He succeeded. Between meeting the three remaining siblings, their children and partners, and jumping straight into their various arguments and alliances — Noelle, suddenly an Orthodox Jew living in Israel; Clarissa, finally deciding to start a family and becoming “a cautionary tale” of failed fertility; Lily, not married and not talking about it; widow Thisbe, secretly moving on; and finally Mom and Dad’s surprise announcement — there’s no chance you’ll find this family anything but utterly engaging, and often embarrassingly familiar.

All of the close-knit drama helps blunt the ever-present backdrop of war. “I was writing when the Iraq war was on people’s mind, but I wasn’t thinking of it in a conscious way,” Henkin said. Which means that, no, he did not purposely channel anti-war-mom-slash-activist Cindy Sheehan through Marilyn, who subsists mainly on war blogs for the column she writes after losing her son. Nor was fallen Leo an homage to Daniel Pearl. But you can’t help but make those connections, even with Henkin being firmly anti-research, writing fiction for fiction’s sake. “I sort of resist research; I feel like you can get too hung up on actual truth rather than the truth of the books,” he said. It’s one of the themes his audience often discusses at readings and book clubs, which Henkin is extremely generous about attending — at last count, he’d been to more than 250. “By phone, by Skype, or in person …. They often know the book better than I do, they keep me on my toes,” he laughed, recalling clubs where he listened to members debate the merits of his novels.

Whether or not you invite Henkin physically into your home to talk story, you’ll feel like part of the family after reading his novel. Brooklyn resident Henkin spent part of his childhood in Berkeley, retains fond memories of dodging protesters on the way to nursery school, and always includes a Bay Area character in his books. “What I want at the end of the book is for readers to know my characters the way they know the people in their own lives,” he said. “And if I’ve done that, I’ve succeeded.” 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or


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