Secrets. It’s a popular theme in fiction these days. Keeping secrets as well as the havoc and damage secrets can lead to offer an author a multitude of plot avenues to explore. You Should Have Known, the latest novel by veteran author Jean Hanff Korelitz, takes a slightly different tact by focusing on the victim of family secrets rather that the perpetrator.
Family therapist Grace Sachs has it all: a successful career, a talented son, a husband at the pinnacle of his medical career, and even her first book set for publication entitled You Should Have Known. Interviews, television appearances - it seems everyone is fascinated by Grace’s unique take on marriage counseling. As Grace declares, no one should be surprised when your marriage disintegrates. After all, the signs were all there before you chose to marry. If you chose to ignore them, it was at your own peril. A cheating spouse? A wife with a gambling addiction? An alcoholic, abusive husband? The signs were all there….you should have known.
Grace’s theories, however, soon get put to the test when her own husband’s secrets are publicly - oh how publicly! - revealed, decimating Grace’s marriage, her career, and her public persona. The question quickly becomes: Should Grace have known?
Korelitz walks a fine line throughout the novel with Grace. It is a generally accepted axiom that a protagonist, regardless of faults, should still be sympathetic to the reader. Grace’s hubris makes this a difficult task at times and while Korelitz tries to offset this by elevating her husband’s crimes beyond any and all acceptable lines, she doesn’t always succeed. The narrative is provided by Grace, giving ample opportunity for long introspective monologues throughout the story. Grace’s general refusal to contemplate her own behavior that enabled her husband to commit such an atrocity starts to wear thin after the first 200 pages.
Throughout most of the novel, Grace seems nothing more than a passive, bewildered observer to her own crisis. If the novel took place over the course of a few days this particular trait might be more understandable - ergo, sympathetic - to the reader. Instead, as the weeks and months pass, it verges on the cusp of annoying. Grace simply allows events to happen to her with little reaction aside from perpetually stunned.
Her husband’s crimes - a thread of the story that promises rapt reader attention - become of less and less importance and ultimately find no resolution by the end. This loose end may well have been a deliberate tactic by Korelitz to indicate the relative unimportance his actions - the novel is, after all, about Grace and her self-discovery - but ends up feeling like an untidy detail forgotten in the need to wrap the story up.
For the reader who can overlook this or find some overriding sympathetic qualities in Grace, the story does have many redeeming qualities. Korelitz excels creating the upper-middle-class, New York City environment that encloses Grace and her family. The continual one upmanship that exists amongst New York mothers jockeying for the best private schools, tutors, and exclusive activities for their children is a thought-provoking indictment of societal values. Put another way: Manhattanites take PTA politics to an entirely new level.
Woven in with this is the theme of friendship and the superficiality of many everyday relationships. Grace’s tendency to keep herself at arms-length from those outside her own nuclear family. Ultimately, she suffers from this decision and finds herself with no support system and a son she thinks she is protecting from the real world.
Although the plot of You Should Have Known is compelling enough to keep turning the pages, weak resolutions and questions about Grace’s character linger for me. Whether you experience sympathy or frustration will likely depend on your own judgement of Grace - an irony considering judgment of others is one of Grace’s great flaws.