The premise sounds like a Hitchcock film: a naive wife, a dashing husband with a secret dark side, a murder. Have Joan Fontaine report to the set, pronto! Except that, in contrast to classics such as “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” where Fontaine honed her signature role as the spouse-who-belatedly-begins-to-have-doubts, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s thriller “You Should Have Known” features a heroine who has cultivated a clinical skepticism about relationships. Grace Reinhart Sachs is a marriage counselor who listens to couples in crisis all day long. She’s hip to the faintest whiff of marital infidelity and duplicity. Too bad Grace doesn’t subject her own husband to the sniff test before it’s too late.
“You Should Have Known” is a flat-out compelling psychological suspense tale that reminds us that smart women (precisely because they’re blinkered by their own brainpower) sometimes can make the most foolish choices. Not only is Grace a sought-after couples therapist in Manhattan, but she’s the author of a forthcoming “very hot” self-help book also called “You Should Have Known.” When the novel begins, Grace is being interviewed by a reporter from Vogue; the “Today” show and “The View” are also on her publicity schedule. As she explains to the reporter, the argument of her book is that women should heed their doubts because once they pick the wrong man, no amount of therapy will fix the marriage. Here’s her blunt advice:
“We’ll try on twenty pairs of shoes before we make a purchase. . . . But we . . . toss out our own natural impressions because we find someone attractive, or because he seems interested in us. He could be holding up a placard that says, I will take your money, make passes at your girlfriends, and leave you consistently bereft of love and support, and we’ll find a way to forget that we ever knew that. We’ll find a way to unknow that.”
Sounds like a bracing dose of tough talk from a therapist, right? Except as Grace discovers over the course of the next few horrific days, she’s managed to unknow a heck of a lot about her own husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist who’s tirelessly devoted his skill and compassion to his young patients and their families. Turns out, Jonathan also may have been devoting other parts of himself to vulnerable females at the renowned cancer hospital where he’s built his career. When the attractive mother of one of those young patients is murdered, the police identify Jonathan as the prime suspect. Conveniently, he’s out of town at a Midwestern medical conference . . . or is he? When Grace, in a panic, tries to reach Jonathan by cellphone, she hears its distinctive ring inside the house and discovers his phone in a dark corner of their bedroom closet.
That’s the only revelation I’ll disclose in this excellent thriller, rich in plot twists, teasers, red herrings, and I-didn’t-see-that-coming moments. In addition to suspense, “You Should Have Known” serves up witty and pointed observations about the higher reaches of society in contemporary Manhattan. One of Korelitz’s previous books was an acclaimed fictional expose of the college admissions ordeal, called, appropriately, “Admission.” (Tina Fey starred in the 2013 movie of the same name.) As she did in “Admission,” Korelitz here trains her expert eye on the inside workings of a world most readers don’t get to see: in this case, the grooming, accessories, speech and rituals that instantly distinguish the privileged from the proles in Manhattan. There’s a wicked early scene here, worthy of Tom Wolfe, where Grace meets with the committee of mostly mega-rich moms who are planning the gala auction at her son’s prep school. Among the items to be auctioned are: “Stays in no fewer than six Hamptons houses, one on Fire Island (‘But the family part,’ [one of the moms] said reassuringly) . . . a chance to shadow the mayor of New York for a day . . . and something called a ‘stem-cell face lift” with a doctor at NYU.’ ”
So vividly does Korelitz describe Grace’s upper-tier slice of Manhattan that when she and her son eventually flee to a hideaway in rural Connecticut, the novel loses some of its steam. But that’s a relatively minor criticism when weighed against the many pleasures it offers. In his book on Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut quotes the master as saying of “Rebecca,” which was his first Hollywood film: “Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture. The fact is the story lacks humor.” Hitchcock could not have said the same of “You Should Have Known”: It artfully combines wit and suspense into an irresistible domestic nightmare.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central. 439 pp. $26