The galleys were a 448-page slab. Not a happy prospect if you're the guy who screams (in vain) to publishers, "Give me your 400 page masterpiece, and I'll give you back a 300-page bestseller." Seriously. In almost any recent novel I can name, no one would miss a hundred pages.
But the author of You Should Have Known is Jean Hanff Korelitz. Her last novel was Admission, which became a Tina Fey movie. She's the founder of the book club service, BooktheWriter.com. [Disclosure: I'm one of the writers. No book club has requested me yet.] My business partner loved the novel. So I plunged in.
"Usually people cried when they came here for the first time..." We are in the office of Grace Reinhart Sachs, a therapist and, soon, an author with a surefire bestseller. Its title: You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them.
There is tough love, and then there is Grace Sachs therapy, which is merciless. "There is no victim," she tells her patients. Over and over, she says, she hears women describe their early interactions with their partner and their early impressions of him. And as they reminisce, she invariably thinks, "You knew right at the beginning... he's never going to stop looking at other women... he can't save money... he's contemptuous."
That's just for openers. As a woman gets into a defective relationship, Grace believes, she kids herself that she's gotten to know him better -- she unlearns what she knows. Which is nuts. Women try on twenty pairs of shoes before they slap down their credit card. But they abandon their critical intelligence when they stumble into the path of an attractive man who's interested in them. Later, when he proves he's a jerk, they're actually surprised. They shouldn't be -- they should have known.
This is, of course, not the therapist's fate. Oh, no. Grace's husband is a man she knew she'd marry the night she met him. And he's turned out to be a saint, a pediatric oncologist at Sloan-Kettering. They have a beautiful home, a fully functioning son. "His life, and her life, was a life of service to terribly unhappy people, carefully balanced by the precious, personal joy of family love and the modest enjoyment of comforts."
The only glitch in her perfect life? The mothers at her son's private school, who toss off lines like "Simon said if I finished the half marathon at the beach, he'd take me to Paris." We have seen these women in many New York novels and Woody Allen movies. They're usually cliché or worse, caricature. At the first sign of a Birkin bag, I always ask: When did this book turn into satire? But writers love this stuff and editors don't cut it and readers lap it up; I'm the only naysayer. The good news: Korelitz makes these women credible -- and, in some ways, more human than the therapist with her doomsday theory of women.
A murder? We didn't see that coming. Or the victim: a woman Grace knows, a mother from her son's school. Impossible. But there's another impossibility. We're on page 100 and although we've heard a great deal about Grace's husband, we haven't met him yet. He's at conferences. Obsessive about his patients. Dr. Busy.
How can this be? You know how: Grace's understanding of her marriage and her man is bullshit. She has quite a lot to learn about her husband, and she's going to spend the rest of the book learning it -- and putting herself through the harsh, painful cure she used to prescribe. Yes, she too should have known.
There's a lot of what felt to me like vamping in the middle of the book, because the reader is ahead of Grace. "This would cut like butter," I thought. Later, I realized the author was tightening the tension. She knew exactly what she was doing. I shouldn't say more; another breadcrumb would spoil your enjoyment of this extremely enjoyable novel.
As a writer who has abandoned journalism for fiction, I was pleased to read how Jean Hanff Korelitz -- a therapist's daughter -- came to write a savvy psychological thriller. It's this:
Like many people, I'm fascinated by the fact that we willfully ignore things about the people we think we know best. I've seen so many intelligent women standing behind their politician husbands -- who have just revealed themselves to be adulterers or addicts or felons -- looking absolutely stunned. You ask yourself: 'How could she not have known?' I wondered how much more interesting it would be if the woman in question was supposedly an expert on human behavior, and highly capable of sensing subterfuge in her patients' spouses.
How very much more interesting indeed.
[Re-posted from HeadButler.com]
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