Emotional Health

Book Review: ‘You Should Have Known,’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


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You Should Have Known, published last year, is a delightful mix of several genres—part comedy of manners, part literary thriller, and part marital self-help book/modern cautionary tale—all of which seem to work. Author Jean Korelitz weaves almost seamlessly between these themes as she threads her story of a Manhattan psychologist, Grace Reinhardt Sachs. Happily married to Jonathan, a saintlike pediatric oncologist whom she met at Harvard, Grace lives and works on the Upper East Side and sends her 12-year-old son, Henry, to the same private school she attended as a girl, though it is much transformed, since it has been invaded by super-rich Wall Street families who have set the pace in the new Manhattan. Korelitz treats us to some devilish satire in scenes showing Grace and her fellow Class Seven Moms planning a school benefit, during which a parent bids $12,000 on a glass of water to start off the evening.

Grace herself is more concerned with her private practice, doing couples therapy, and the imminent publication of her new book, You Should Have Known, which asserts that men often, if not always, show signs of what they are really like early in a relationship, but women choose to ignore, or “unknow,” the knowledge that is right in front of them. An example she uses is a couple she is working with as the novel begins. The husband has decided that he wants to explore his sexuality . . . well, actually he thinks he’s gay . . . well, it turns out that actually he’s met someone and is moving to Chelsea. Grace asks the wife, “What did you think he was telling you when he mentioned, while you were dating, that he had fooled around with a few guys in college? Why did you not ask any follow-up questions about that?” It turns out that the husband in this case had also had a significant long-term relationship with a man before marrying.

In her book, Grace scoldingly remarks that women will try on 20 pairs of shoes before deciding which to buy, but choose a mate based on a “gut feeling” alone. Of course, this is a novel and not a self-help book, so we don’t get much of an explanation for this phenomenon, but we do begin to wonder why Grace herself is so smug—especially since we soon learn that “not knowing” is exactly what she did with her husband, the fabulous Dr. Jonathan Sachs. Jonathan himself is off at an oncology conference “somewhere in the Midwest,” which Grace conceives of—like the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon—as a vague area between the Hudson River and Los Angeles. But when he stays away too long, and when she finds out that she actually has no idea where he is, she starts to discover, bit by devastating bit, that Jonathan is not as saintlike as she’d thought.

This takes the reader into twisty-murder-mystery territory as well as on an intriguing psychological journey as we watch what happens when you find out that the person closest to you is not the person you thought he was . . . not at all.

Grace, of course, did “know” about Jonathan, at least unconsciously, but she worked hard to defend herself from seeing the truth. Her defensiveness was responsible for her cool demeanor, distant manner, and, especially, her attitude toward her patients. Though I felt a shock of recognition when I started reading about this character (especially about her book), I was dismayed at the distancing and superior attitude and tone she used when speaking about her patients. This is a phenomenon I have observed many times. It usually stems from the therapist’s need to deny his or her own vulnerability: It’s as if the therapist is saying, “I have no problems, but you really need help!” Mental-health professionals are much more effective when they approach their patients with empathy for their vulnerabilities; an awareness and understanding of the therapist’s own problems and weaknesses is crucial to this. These therapists work from a point of view that begins, “I have experienced a range of emotions and experiences not unlike yours, and we are in this together.”

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  • Mary Faucher April 2, 2015 at 9:58 am

    My two cents: I read the highly touted “You Should Have Known” last year and was disappointed – both the social satire and the “mystery” of the true nature of the protagonist’s spouse and her relationship with him fell flat for me. I found a much more convincing and compelling treatment of such relationships in the recently published “Saluting the Sun,” by Mary Hutchings Reed. (Full disclosure: Reed is a friend of mine.) And for social satire, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” nails it and is laugh out loud funny. Not so, “You Should Have Known.”