Marilyn and David lost their adult son, Leo, a year ago in Iraq. This loss, even though Leo was an adult with a wife and child of his own, has torn apart the forty-some-year marriage of Marilyn and David as they both cope differently.
They have decided to announce their separation to their other children and grandchildren over the Fourth of July holiday. Even though the holiday seems like a vacation, there will also be a one year memorial service held for Leo. The family felt the funeral was too public, with the press and many strangers involved, and they want something more intimate to pay their respects.
The family meets at their vacation home in the Berkshires, each member bringing along his or her own problems. Clarissa and her husband have decided to conceive a child, which will be hard because Clarissa is in her late thirties. Lily acts as if nothing bothers her and puts on a tough exterior. Noelle, the youngest of the sisters, is a strict Orthodox Jew living in Israel with her husband and four sons. She always feels out of place with the family, feeling as if they don't respect her strict religious followings. At the same time, everyone else in the family feels out of place around Noelle, who was the family wild child all through high school before suddenly moving across the world and becoming so devout to Judaism. Lastly, there is Thisbe, Leo's widow. She returns for the memorial with Calder, their three-year-old son who barely knows this side of his family and will only ever remember his father from pictures.
As what always happens when putting this many people in one small space, there are quarrels, new friendships made, secrets revealed, apologies given for past wrongdoings, and debates about right and wrong. A family drama at its finest, The World Without You by Joshua Henkin examines what makes up a family, what unconditional love means, and how to get along with the people we are related to.