One fall evening in 1962, on the steps of Harvard’s Lamont Library, short, ambitious, Jewish Ed Cantowitz, a scholarship student from Dorchester, encounters tall, lazy, WASP Hugh Shipley, an Ivy League scion who summers on Fisher’s Island. Because this encounter takes place on the first page of a novel, these two motherless sons of terrible fathers are destined to be fast friends by the end of the evening, in love with the same girl by spring, and devastatingly estranged before a year is out.
Some 400 pages later, after highs and lows, countless drinks and cigarettes, passionate sex (not with each other), and the loss of two fingers, they finally meet again, at an idyllic if ultimately fraught family wedding.
In other words, Joanna Hershon’s “A Dual Inheritance,’’ the novel Ed and Hugh inhabit, offers everything one might expect — and want — in a family saga, late-20th-century Harvard-style. It’s hardly possible to write a wildly original novel that includes either Harvard or two friends who are at once antithetical and, as Ed himself realizes in a late epiphany, crucially alike. But it is absolutely possible to write an absorbing, fully-realized novel, and that’s what Hershon has done.
Hershon, who teaches at Columbia, particularly excels at setting: the bohemian academia of early 1960s Cambridge; Dorchester, first as the thriving, striving Jewish community of Ed’s childhood, then as a deteriorating streetscape of escalating Jewish-Black tension; anxious expat communities in Dar es Salaam and Haiti; an elite boarding school in the 1980s. She renders the book’s many locales with a nuanced appreciation for the way environment emerges out of the confluence of physical detail and social experience.
At boarding school, Ed’s daughter, Rebecca, and Hugh’s daughter, Vivi, smoke at “the Tree, which had evidently been struck by lightning years ago and left to rot on its side . . . Two people could comfortably fit inside the sideways hollow, and it sustained a crowd on its trunk and surviving branches.” Rebecca talks to her father nightly in a “phone closet . . . with the phone numbers and the Rilke and Patti Smith and Fleetwood Mac quotes scrawled on the wall.”
While “A Dual Inheritance’’ is always attuned to place, its entwined characters do not all receive equal attention. Blunt and determined Ed is most fully alive, at once repellent and compelling in his naked yearning for success, his business machinations, and his overbearing love for his daughter. Hugh, the disaffected American who runs away from his patrimony to heal his alienation in Africa, is more remote for both his fellow characters and the reader. From his initial flirtation with a gauzy vision of anthropological filmmaking, to his successful career as a hero of Third World health care, Hugh holds the world at bay, even as he tries to embrace it.
Meanwhile, his alcoholism and infidelity mark the impossibility of escaping the angst of his privilege (think Graham Greene, late-20th-century Harvard-style). Helen, the object of Ed’s and Hugh’s mutual desire, eventually manages to become her own person but never plays more than a supporting role in a story that focuses closely on men and their daughters.
It is in the lives of brooding Rebecca and Vivi, an anxious child who inexplicably becomes a wildly confident teenager and adult, that “A Dual Inheritance’’ becomes a saga, that is, a story of the legacies that twist through generations. From the moment, at almost the exact midpoint of the book, that a hitherto unrecognized Vivi (called Genevieve in an earlier chapter) tells her new acquaintance Rebecca that her father runs health clinics in Tanzania and Haiti, it is obvious who she is and inevitable that the two will become best friends.
It is only slightly less inevitable that Rebecca will yearn for the excitement and higher purpose of the Shipleys’ life, while Vivi will be enticed by the Cantowitzes’ luxe lifestyle, and that Rebecca will wobble through early adulthood on a Hugh-like teeter-totter of anxiety and doubt, while Vivi sails forward with Ed’s certainty.
A brief note at the beginning of the novel defines “dual inheritance theory” as the explanation of “how human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution.” “A Dual Inheritance’’ efficiently plays this out. Ed and Hugh, Rebecca and Vivi are shaped by their forebears, the environments they inhabit, and their relationships.
But the novel’s title has further reverberations. Another form of inheritance, money, profoundly determines its characters’ lives. Hugh has it (though he claims not to care), and Ed wants it, facts that drive just about everything that happens to them and, if more complexly, their daughters. This financial discrepancy is just one of the novel’s many dualities, which reverse, refract, and collapse throughout the book, yet remain inescapable.
But if such schematism is one of fiction’s limitations, it can also be one of its great satisfactions. “A Dual Inheritance’’ never lets its readers forget they are reading a well-crafted novel, and as a well-crafted novel, it fully satisfies.