“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Grace Reinhart, an almost-40-year-old Manhattan couples therapist, has written a book on the brink of being published. Entitled You Should Have Known, it is based on her 15-year experience with couples in crisis. Her premise is that women negate their initial impressions and intuition about the men in their lives and tell themselves their judgment was wrong, “Now that I’ve gotten to know him better.” Then they end up in her office trying to fix things or just biding time until the inevitable dissolution. Instead of letting themselves off the hook with “You just never know about people,” after the man gambles, cheats, drinks, etc., Grace wants women to be responsible for their self-delusions and their decisions to ignore their own gut reactions. Yes, she knows that men sometimes delude themselves as well, but since 90 percent of her practice is initiated by females, she aims the book at them.
The first third of the book introduces us to Grace and her insular life. She is married to Jonathan Sachs, a pediatric oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, astonishingly charming and incredibly popular with patients and their families. After 18 years of marriage, she still pinches herself at her astounding luck in finding him. Their 12-year-old son Henry is a bright, hardworking student at Rearden, the same prep school that Grace attended. They live in the apartment where Grace grew up as an only child like her own son. Grace walks her son to school every day and picks him up in the afternoon. Some of the other parents are her former schoolmates. Once a week they reluctantly go to dinner at the home of her father and his second wife Eva.
Ms. Korelitz’s prose is quite superb and her description of the prep school mother world is enthralling. In addition to the routine of daily drop-off and pickup of students, there are the committee meetings, fund raisers and the pecking order of the relationships of parents, faculty, legacy seat students and scholarship students. Of supreme importance is the personal grooming, youthful looks, BMI, clothing and accessories of the mothers, and of course, the wealth and influence of the fathers. Rearden is the type of school whose students are “set for life.” The snobbery is palpable, as described through Grace’s eyes, who thinks she is an observerbut to this reader as least appeared to be a participant observer. Grace Reinhart leads a very insular life, dare I say self absorbed, and seems to have everyone else’s foibles figured out without examining her own.
Then, a fourth grader, a scholarship student, comes home from school to find his mother bludgeoned to death but his baby sister unharmed. Grace has not been able to contact Jonathan at the medical conference in Ohio and he is not responding to text or voicemail. Henry knows nothing about his father’s whereabouts, either. While standing in her bedroom, Grace makes another effort to e-mail Jonathan, then hears the familiar sound of an incoming cell phone message and follows it to Jonathan’s bedside table. His cell is tightly wedged behind multiple leather binders organizing his music CD collection, its battery almost dead. Sadly, this educated, accomplished, successful professional woman, does not seem to grasp the significance of this, that the cell was not left behind, it was hidden away. Is she dim or is this the stupor of love? In Grace’s own words, “How could she not have known?”
The author deviously then begins dismantling everything we just learned about Grace’s life – every aspect of it, every relationship – but especially her marriage. While You Should Have Known has a murder and quite a few thrills, it is not a mystery, but is definitely a book about relationships. Many pages are devoted to Grace’s self-examination of her life, primarily her relationship with Jonathan, his dysfunctional family whom she barely knows, her grief for her deceased mother, memories of her parents’ relationship, the break-up with her life-long best friend, her feelings about her father’s second wife, about not having a second child, etc. Ms. Korelitz’s superlative writing skills makes this self-reflection intriguing for the reader as well as very illuminating for Grace. Character and plot development move along at a nice clip, with Grace’s reconstruction of her life and her relationships maintaining interest. She manages to downsize her lifestyle and expand her world at her same time.
On a scale of zero to five, I would rate this book a 3.75 due to the ending. It was a bit too tidy and seemed out of place with the first two and a half parts of the novel. It is definitely a good read, full of superlative description of life in Manhattan and one woman’s struggle to (figuratively) wake up and smell the coffee.
You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz is available at Collier County Public Library, your favorite independent bookstore, e-format, and hardcover at all the major booksellers.