You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

korelitzI don’t have much time for endorsements on book covers, and generally they tend to irritate me, especially when they say ‘if you like x you’ll love this’, which never proves to be the case. This one came with an endorsement from Daisy Goodwin: ‘A great psychological thriller…I couldn’t put it down’, which was inoffensive, if unoriginal, at least. As the novel had been sent by the publisher and I knew nothing at all about it or its author, I was at least sufficiently curious to give it a go. And oh how glad I am that I did. And yes this is a great psychological thriller and no I couldn’t put it down. But it is a great deal more than that, or at the very least a great example of what a fine and intelligent writer can do with the genre.

I’m loath to tell you too much about the plot in case I spoil the intense pleasure you will have (I hope) when you read it (which I hope you will).  But here is what the blurb says:

Grace Sachs, a happily married therapist with a young son, thinks she knows everything about women, men and marriage. She is about to publish a book called You Should Have Known, based on her pet theory: women don’t value their intuition about what men are really like, leading to serious trouble later on.

But how well does Grace know her own husband? She is about to find out, and in the place of what she thought she knew, there will be a violent death, a missing husband, and a chain of terrible revelations.

Put rather baldly, that is exactly what happens. Grace and Jonathan have been married for nearly twenty years and he, and their twelve-year-old son Henry, are the centre of her life. But a close second comes the work she does with unhappy couples, and her conviction that women do have a buried sense of the true character of the men they are about to marry, which they choose to ignore, because they are blinded by romantic love. So when Jonathan disappears and her domestic life falls apart with horrific suddenness, all her most strongly held beliefs inevitably follow, and Grace no longer knows who she is or what she believes.

Disappearing partners might make you think of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but Korelitz is not Gillian Flynn, nor is she Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, nor any other of the great practitioners of psychological thrillers we have come to know and love. This is of course true in many ways, as no good writer should resemble another, but one difference here is that ultimately, despite the deeply upsetting happenings at the centre of the book, this is not a dark novel. If I say that, on the contrary, it ends by being uplifting, don’t run away with the idea that it must be sentimental, with all the negative connotations that has acquired. A lot of genuine and only too understandable pain is suffered by Grace, but though, or because, she must shed almost all her beliefs not only about her own relationship but also of those of others, including her own parents, she does in the end emerge into a better place where we very much hope she will manage to remain.

The novel is beautifully crafted, or so I thought. Of course the main plot predominates but there’s an awful lot more going on as well. For much of the book Grace lives in New York, actually in the same flat she was born in, and Henry attends the same school she went to. But how things have changed at that school. Once a place that welcomed children of musicians, artists, lawyers, doctors, it has turned into a massively expensive and selective establishment for the massively rich, and Korelitz has fun (yes, there’s fun here too) with these scarily thin and driven mothers who organise auctions to raise money for scholarships at which someone will happily bid $11,000 for a glass of tap water. Then there’s Henry, on the verge of adolescence, still deeply attached to his mother but beginning to question the future that has seemed to be mapped out for him – classical violinist or scholar, perhaps. Henry needlessly to say has a lot of growing up to do too, and even Grace’s father comes to open up to her in ways she would never have believed possible. There’s also a nice, quite small but important sub plot in which Grace is reunited with a best friend from childhood who she thought she had lost forever.

But above all this is Grace’s story, and I was with her all the way, through her first incarnation as a good woman, a good mother and a good therapist, through events so dramatic that she all but loses her mind, and out the other end into a fragile but hopefully increasingly stable peace. I’d never heard of Korelitz before but I shall be seeking out her other work. If it’s as good as this, I’ve got a treat in store.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jean Hanff Korelitz, You Should Have Known (London: Faber and Faber, 2014). 9780571307517, 439 pp., hardback.

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