A slow-burning, psychologically twisted ride.
Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York City and educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of the novels: The Latecomer, The Plot, You Should Have Known, Admission, The Devil and Webster, The White Rose, The Sabbathday River, and A Jury of Her Peers, as well as a middle-grade reader, Interference Powder, and a collection of poetry, The Properties of Breath. With her husband, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, she adapted James Joyce’s “The Dead” as an immersive theatrical event, THE DEAD, 1904. The play was produced by Dot Dot Productions, LLC, for the Irish Repertory Theatre and performed at New York’s American Irish Historical Society for seven-week runs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Korelitz is the founder of BOOKTHEWRITER, a New York City based service that offers “Pop-Up Book Groups” where readers can discuss books with their authors. Events are now being held simultaneously in person in New York City (with participants vaccinated and masked) and online over Zoom. She and Paul Muldoon are the parents of two children and live in New York City.
I buddy-read this book after watching the series, The Undoing, on HBO because I’m always curious how closely shows follow the books they’re adapted from. The show definitely tightened up the scenes and propelled the action forward. It was also interesting to see Jonathan’s character on screen portrayed by the ever-charming Hugh Grant, instead of reading about him from other people’s perspectives and Grace’s memories.
I enjoyed the written style of the book and there was something eerily addictive about the uncertainties of Jonathan’s character that definitely created conflict for me, dithering between his guilt or innocence in connection to such a brutal crime-in spite of the fact that all evidence pointed at him. The idea that a respectable member of the community could have something to do with a heinous crime is always puzzling to those around them. But isn’t that always the case in real life? As Sylvia Steineitz says to Grace in the series, “It’s always the husband.” And I think the complexities of relationships, family, and the disruption of everyday life are something the author expertly highlights in this novel. Those themes kept me turning the pages, curious as to how these types of people so easily slip under the radar, how monsters are made, and how we can try to better spot them among us—essentially (I imagine) what Grace’s self-help book, You Should Have Known, is supposed to shed light on.
The frustrating inner musings of Grace, who is in utter denial of her husband’s wrongdoings, concerned me for two reasons. Firstly, she is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, and second, she is on the brink of publishing a book titled, You Should Have Known, detailing all the ways in which women ignore the red flags in their relationships and ultimately fall under the spells of their dysfunctional counterparts. At first, the idea that Grace was blindly unaware of the troubles in her own marriage made me question her character’s authenticity. As my buddy reader said, “what kind of New Yorker doesn’t have a healthy dose of paranoia and suspicion about absolutely everything?” and I agree, also having lived in the city. But after giving it some thought, I couldn’t help but think of the private complexities in relationships like Grace and Jonathan’s, or of any marriage, for that matter. The idea that the people we choose to spend our lives with are not always who we think they are, or who they portray themselves to be is thought-provoking. Further to that, it creates an even more terrifying portrayal of just how slippery sociopaths and psychopaths are, especially when a trained professional such as Grace can’t spot one right in front of her. Often described as charming, friendly, do-gooder types; pillars of the community, presidents of their church, or bright young men embodying above-average intelligence. It seems they’re everywhere in modern society today.
With the exception of Grace’s childhood friend, Vita, and lakehouse neighbor, Leo, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likable, including Grace. But I also think that was the point. However, I did come to understand her more as the novel progressed and she reconnected with the people from her past whom Jonathan had successfully isolated her from. That revealed a side of her character I initially didn’t see. The women she chose to surround herself with in the city were vile, and the relationships she nurtured were few and far between. My favorite part of the novel began when she left the city and moved to her family’s lakehouse in Connecticut, where she and Henry finally began to piece their lives back together. It seemed as though things would work out for them, and there was even an allusion to future romance for Grace in spite of everything she’d been through. I loved learning that in spite of everything, Grace’s publisher was not ready to drop the book deal, and interestingly, wanted to push back its publication and rewrite the forward, using the crime as fuel to drive sales which provided a glimpse of hope for Grace’s future.
Even though the pace was slow and the cast of characters was morally ambiguous, I can’t stop thinking about this novel. I recommend reading it even if you have watched the HBO series because there’s so much more to the characters than the on-screen version could possibly depict. I’m intrigued to read her other books, especially The Plot, which is being adapted into a limited series by Hulu.
For readers who enjoy slow-burning, psychological suspense, and twisted families with dark secrets.
Published February 25th, 2014
Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: she lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended.
Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.