In its mesmerizing first chapter, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s “You Should Have Known’’ throws down the riveting preamble to its no-holds-barred, chilling gauntlet.
Grace Reinhart Sachs, a Manhattan-based therapist, is in her office being interviewed and photographed for Vogue. Grace specializes in marriage counseling and couples therapy and has broken from the pack: Rather than primarily offering comfort to disillusioned and disappointed women, Grace tries to also expose what mystifyingly eluded them — that early on in their now-failing relationships, their prospective ideal mate indicated in clear, undeniable ways that he was not the one for them.
Grace has, she acknowledges, “a predisposition for social observation and insight . . . She couldn’t play music, like her son, or make dying children live, like her husband . . . but she could sit down with people and see, usually very quickly, usually with unnerving clarity, what snares they were setting for themselves and how not to fall into them. Or, if they were already ensnared . . . how to free themselves.”
Channeling that insight, Grace has written a book, “You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them,’’ and now a small army of professionals — publicist, agent, editor — is immersing her in pre-publication publicity.
Clearly this is a character riding for a fall, and Korelitz does not disappoint as she chronicles the emotional unraveling of her heroine in this gripping saga.
There’s no doubt that Grace’s life looks good both on and off paper: Born and bred in New York City, married to a highly-regarded pediatric oncologist and with a son enrolled at a tony private school — Grace’s alma mater — she’s also been lucky enough to inherit her parents’ Upper East Side apartment and a lake house in Connecticut, “mysteriously purchased by Grace’s grandmother (and namesake) at the height of the Depression for the bizarre sum of $4,000.”
Socializing with other school mothers — most of them wives of financial titans — Grace has a semi-foothold in the wealthy world of the “urban McMansion.” And, of course, there is her fabulous, perfect husband, Jonathan: “He was the love of her life, the companion, the partner, the spouse. He was every single thing she urged her male clients to be, and every single thing she had told the imaginary readers of her book they deserved.”
But what if he isn’t? When a horrible crime hits at the heart of the school’s community, Jonathan, off at a medical conference in the Midwest, proves impossible to track down. Things hit a distinctly creepy note when Grace tries to call him and discovers that his mobile phone is tucked away in a drawer at home.
As a claustrophobic noose of unwelcome revelation tightens around Grace, it tightens just as effectively around us.
Korelitz, who proved her own predisposition for social observation in her 2009 novel “Admission,’’ nails entertaining details of the upper-crust lifestyles of Manhattan’s elite — the ladies who feature regularly on Best Dressed lists, whose macrobiotic larders are featured in Vanity Fair, whose laundry rooms with “uniformed laundresses ironing the zillion-thread-count sheets,” are showcased in Architectural Digest.”
And she’s even better at capturing the intense physicality of Grace’s experience, minute by minute, from Grace’s freefall to the stirrings of recovery: “She stood still to let the now familiar sensation have its way with her. It felt like screaming acid, poured directly over her skull, then flowing through her and out the tips of her fingers, the tips of her toes, pooling around her in a black, treacly mess. She was becoming used to it. She was becoming tactical in her response to it: Don’t fight, go loose, let it pass. In only a few minutes, she could move again.”
A cut above your average who-is-this-stranger-in-my-marriage-bed novel, “You Should Have Known’’ transforms itself at certain moments from a highly effective thriller into a nuanced novel of family, heritage, identity, and nurture.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.