There’s a whole sub-genre of women’s novels that leaves a good wife abandoned and deceived on page one. The woman is making spaghetti when the husband ducks into the kitchen and says he’s leaving for good. Or the husband dies and leaves a little black book — or a couple of extra wives. Men, too, have written these stories: In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” a husband ducks out of the house and is not seen again for years. And, of course, there’s Dashiell Hammett’s famous vignette, the Flitcraft parable, about a husband, barely missed by a falling girder, who leaves his wife and finds another.
In her smart new mystery, “You Should Have Known,” Jean Hanff Korelitz has taken this genre one step further, and if I didn’t know of two such cases myself, I’d think she was exaggerating. Since women have grown more prosperous, self-sufficient and competent, their husbands have figured out ever more devious and creepy crimes to perpetrate against them.
The heroine of this novel, Grace Reinhart Sachs, is a successful New York couples therapist. In her office, put-upon women recite ghoulish lists of thoughtlessness, and their husbands act out in the most unrepentant manner. Over the years, Grace has become so disgusted with the bovine stupidity of women that she’s written a book, “You Should Have Known,” in which she castigates females for not paying attention on the very first date. If a man says, “Stay away from me, baby, I’m poison,” he probably means it. But as another character in this book remarks, “The human brain is very good at making up stories to feel better about something when it gets unbearable.”A woman married to a lying, cheating slime will make up exculpatory stories about her husband’s unhappy childhood, his greedy siblings, his neglectful parents, his overall lack of opportunity. And then she’s shocked when all that turns out not to be true.
Oddly enough, Grace’s own beloved and brilliant husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, had just such a childhood, but Jonathan said nothing about being poison when they met. In fact, they fell madly in love during their first half-hour together. Now, in addition to her nonpareil husband, she has a wonderful, musically gifted son, Henry. And her book is about to be published. She is, she thinks, lucky beyond words.
People have a way of making up stories.
Grace is a quintessential New Yorker. She lives in the same apartment her parents lived in. (Her father, a very successful lawyer, has remarried a wealthy widow.) Her son is a legacy student at the exclusive Rearden prep school, a place she and Jonathan couldn’t afford if she hadn’t been a student there herself. And she owns a rustic lake house in rural Connecticut, which her grandma bought during the Depression. Taken all together, Grace and her family are cultured, educated, hard-working, completely immersed in New York life.
At a committee meeting for a school fundraiser, Grace meets another mother who very shamelessly nurses a sturdy infant. There’s something off-putting about her. Then Johnathan says he’s going off to a conference in Cleveland. (Like Wakefield? Or Flitcraft?) After a few days of him missing, Grace, worried sick, goes to the hospital where he works, and . . . .
I can’t say what happens next. But there’s a murder and grand larceny and an appalling media circus, and any divorced woman will recognize the anguished feeling that grips Grace: “Everything I lived was a lie!” (Or was it?)
Nothing here is exactly as it seems. “You Should Have Known” raises the question: What do you do when you meet someone and fall in love — just assume that everything he or she says is a lie, unless it’s in a notarized statement? We have to believe the people we meet. What else is there to do? It’s something to think about, besides looking for lipstick on what may turn out to be a perfectly innocent collar.
YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central. 438 pp. $26