YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN
Author: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Faber Fiction RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
If your relationship broke down and someone said, “You should have known”, what would you do? Akin to saying “I told you so”, such an observation would likely provoke anger, or at least, irritation. Yet, in hindsight, could it be the case that the signs were there all along, but were ignored in the flush of love or lust? Is it possible that your intuition was correct? In You Should Have Known, author Jean Hanff Korelitz explores this theory and makes a compelling case that many people ignore their intuition about prospective life partners, which leads to trouble later on. It’s a clever novel that unfolds slowly through the unravelling of one woman’s relationship and life, and raises inner debate in the reader about what they “should have known” in their own choices. I could certainly see the truth in it.
‘You knew right at the beginning. She knew he was never going to stop looking at other women. She knew he couldn’t save money. She knew he was contemptuous of her… But then she somehow let herself un-know what she knew.’
Korelitz sets up an interesting narrative, with the protagonist, a therapist, having to heed her own advice when her her happy marriage falls apart without warning. Or was it without warning? Were the signs already there? Grace Sachs, wife, mother and therapist, thinks she knows everything about women, men and marriage and is about to publish a non-fiction book called You Should Have Known. When her husband goes missing and a woman is found murdered, Grace realises that she has fallen victim to ignoring her own intuition, just like her many clients, and her life, as she knows it, is over.
The novel is structured in three parts – before, during and after. Korelitz sets Grace up for the fall in the ‘before’ section, introducing a character who comes across as somewhat judgmental and self-satisfied, which makes her not particularly likeable; some readers may struggle with this section because Grace is reserved and detached – revealing her thoughts about others’ actions, but little of her own fears and troubles. She extols the virtues of her near-saintly husband, wearing her rose-coloured glasses with naivety and denial; of course, the reader is pre-disposed to suspect her husband of something – if not clear to Grace, it’s obvious to the reader that all will not end well. Things come to a head in the ‘during’ section, as Grace discovers her husband’s deceit, yet even this unfolds slowly, and it is not until late in the novel that she (and the reader) really understands what was there in front of her all along – what kind of man her husband really was. The tension builds slowly, but it’s not the edge-of-your-seat variety, rather a growing sense of unease that the reader shares with Grace.
Korelitz does a great job using the shallow rich-people-in-New-York setting to highlight the masks people wear in their day-to-day life. It’s not an easy setting for me to relate to and I did find it difficult to connect with at first, particularly since Grace was so hard to get to know. Yet, as the story unfolded, the setting enhanced the notion that we only know what people let us see and I think it was well chosen; later the setting changed to one more welcoming and community-based, which underscored Grace’s need for support after her life came crashing down.
Speaking about this book, the author has said it fascinates her how people ignore or un-know the obvious and after reading the book, I confess to sharing her fascination. I’ve been there – in my past, I’ve had to come to that realisation that the signs were there all along. Korelitz’s observations are astute, her writing penetrating and clever. Having said that, the dry writing style (particularly in the first third) of You Should Have Known will not suit everyone, and nor will the slowly unfolding story, especially if they want action. To me, it makes sense – Grace has to have her illusions shattered; the slow build-up and the focus on her observations about others only makes it more powerful when it happens. A great read, I’d recommend this for those who love psychological suspense and the “How well do we know the ones we love?” question.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: I snacked on Jelly Tots as I read. The trouble is that once I start the packet, it’s hard to stop!