Page one: Grace Reinhart Sachs is in her office being interviewed and photographed for Vogue, one of many events preceding the publication of her book You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them. Grace is a therapist whose practice focuses on unraveling relationships. For weeks she has been surrounded by agents, publicists, bookers for media events, and sundry other pros that populate the bandwagon of a major book launch. She has been assured her book will “snag the Zeitgeist.” She goes from the Vogue session to a meeting in an Upper East Side apartment straight out of Architectural Digest, joining a group of expensively-tended women to finalize the details of a fundraising gala for the private school their children attend. Following the meeting, she picks up her young son, Henry, and they head to his violin lesson with an instructor who takes only the most promising students. They head home to get dinner going. Both hope Jonathan Sachs M.D., father and husband, can break free of his lucrative practice in pediatric oncology to join them.
Let’s just say any problems these people have are going to fall into the category of First World Problems. Actually – and definitely worse – they’re going to have Upper East Side Problems.
Korelitz has a gift for dialogue, so it drove me crazy that the first third of the book was largely narrative. But I plugged along, and finally realized the author’s intention. Grace is surrounded by people in her professional, personal, and social lives, but she lives a largely solitary and disengaged life. In the early chapters, Korelitz is an omniscient narrator who buries Grace in the text, endlessly describing Grace’s thoughts and daily life. As a reader I often felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of words on the pages. These early chapters are a lesson in rebellion against the “Don’t Tell Us; Show Us” lesson every writing teacher preaches. It’s a bold stylistic choice, and it pays off. Grace is never off the page; other characters enter and exit only to engage with her in brief conversation. The narrative simultaneously distances us from Grace and mirrors her, as it becomes clear that Grace is equally distanced from her story and herself. She has the right house, clothes, husband, and son. She says almost all the right words to her patients. But her life is a sham, an empty shell. It is not clear if she does not realize this, or if she chooses not to acknowledge it. And it is that ambiguity which makes the story most compelling. Who amongst us is consistently clear about ourselves and our intentions?
If you stick with it for 75 pages (I confess I skimmed a bit), you are rewarded with a tense and riveting plot and a cast of well-drawn characters. Grace finds her voice at a point when her world and almost everything she thought counted is upended. The dialogue becomes the novel’s driving force and we experience Grace in the “Show Us” mode that makes for a satisfying novel. She regains her balance when she escapes Manhattan for Upstate New York, where she and Jonathan have a summer house on a lake. (Well, of course they do.)
It is to Korelitz’s credit that she has written a serious and literate novel about marriage and self-knowledge, and managed to pepper it with great houses, good looking neighbors, excellent food descriptions, and a winning rescue dog. Works for me.