‘You Should Have Known’ details a therapist’s own unraveling
It’s almost impossible to put down Jean Hanff Korelitz’s riveting new novel for the first 200 pages as it dismantles the comfortable existence of a couples therapist over the course of a few nightmarish weeks.
We first meet Grace Reinhart Sachs ensconced in her office, being interviewed by a Vogue writer about her forthcoming book, “You Should Have Known.” This book-within-a-book argues that women get themselves into bad marriages by failing to see the clear signs that were there from the beginning about their spouses’ failings.
Granted, this seems a little harsh and Grace a little smug. But as she interacts with the wealthy, entitled parents at her 12-year-old son Henry’s ultra-swanky Manhattan private school (the one she attended when it was a hippie-ish place for the only moderately privileged), we’re instinctively on the side of this native New Yorker who sees her city turning into an enclave for the super-rich.
She and her husband, Jonathan, are different, Grace believes; they work to help people. He’s a pediatric oncologist known for his warm involvement with his patients and their families. This means he keeps odd hours, and they don’t have any close friends, because “Jonathan didn’t need many people in his life.” Although she regrets the childhood friends she’s let slip away, she’s quite sure she has “the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.”
Readers, of course, can already see that Grace has missed a lot of signs indicating there’s something not right about the seemingly perfect (yet somehow always absent) Jonathan. Nonetheless, we share her sense of lurking dread when it all starts to come unglued, because Korelitz so expertly unwinds the series of escalating revelations that lead to the grim truth.
When the mother of a boy at Henry’s school is found murdered. Grace can’t imagine why the police want to interview her. She wishes Jonathan were home so she could talk to him about it, but he’ll be back from his conference in Cleveland tomorrow, right? She still doesn’t quite get it when she finds his BlackBerry hidden in their bedroom, or when the school principal comments obliquely that the dead woman’s son was on a scholarship “not set up through the usual channels.”
It wouldn’t be fair to give away too much about the specifics that brutally tell Grace that Jonathan won’t be coming home — at least not voluntarily. However, this is not a murder mystery; it’s the story of a woman slowly realizing how much she has misjudged, and not just about her sociopathic husband. When Grace flees with Henry to the Connecticut summer house she inherited from her mother, it sets the stage for reassessment and renewal: “She felt as if some great pause button had been depressed when Jonathan stepped into her life, and only this instant had the finger come away and released her forward motion.”
The novel’s pace slows, and its wrenching tension dissipates in the second half. There are several more big revelations, about Grace’s parents and Jonathan’s childhood, but they’re part of a quieter drama as Grace accepts her own role in constructing a life based on lies. Refreshingly, Korelitz doesn’t beat up Grace for her mistakes; she shows her learning from them and finding more solid ground. “I want to have a past to give to Henry,” Grace tells her father. “I don’t need it to be perfect, just to be real.”
Korelitz’s gift for enfolding a woman’s personal crisis within a sharply observed social context is as evident here as it was in her fine previous novel, “Admission” (later made into a less fine rom-com starring Tina Fey). Rural Connecticut provides the low-key atmosphere Grace and Henry need to recover — indeed, her son settles happily into a middle school and reveals a fondness for Japanese anime that had completely escaped her when she was busy trundling him to high-pressure violin lessons in Manhattan. Grace begins to rebuild her professional life in this new setting and is astonished to learn that her editor still intends to publish her book, complete with its now hideously ironic title (though she does want a new foreword).
There’s even a new romance in the works; Korelitz is a generous writer who wishes her heroine well. Readers who have followed Grace through the ordeal grippingly delineated in “You Should Have Known,” will agree that she deserves her chastened happy ending.
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for The Times and the Washington Post.
You Should Have Known
Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central: 440 pp., $26.00
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