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Husband's disappearance leaves hole in breezy 'chick-lit'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/3/2014 (1250 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Serious fictionistas might look down on chick-lit, but sometimes a catchy story makes up for the over-writing characteristic of this genre.

That's the case with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Her latest novel, which comes out Tuesday, revolves around Grace Reinhart Sachs, a family therapist with a perfect life. Grace's upcoming book, titled You Should Have Known, admonishes women for ignoring their initial intuition about their partners' habits and quirky behaviours. Television talk-show hosts have lined her up for appearances.

Grace considers herself the luckiest woman alive when it comes to men. She and her husband, a pediatric oncologist, live in the same Manhattan apartment where she grew up. Husband Jonathan is handsome and devoted to his suffering patients, "fatally soft hearted, a profoundly humane and selfless person... people seemed unable to resist taking advantage of his good nature." Their intelligent 12-year-old son excels at the same private school Grace attended.

But Grace is as guilty as the women on her therapist's couch of turning a blind eye to niggling concerns. When another mother in her son's school is murdered, Jonathan disappears and is the prime suspect. Very quickly, Grace's ideal life collapses.

It turns out there are many skeletons in her husband's closet, some of which shock Grace's sensibilities. She has to reach deep to clean house and move on, for her sake and her son's. Since it's chick-lit, we know everything will be tied up nicely at the end.

The problems with this novel are not with the story, but with the structure. Korelitz spends 100 pages setting up the impending disaster, padding the narrative with repetition about Grace using "the dry-cleaners her mother had used and eating in some of the restaurants once favoured by her parents." The pace picks up when she faces her own mistakes and begins to redeem herself.

It's all about Grace and the pressures she faces in the competitive, expensive world of bitchy upper-crust New York women. But Korelitz could have developed the secondary characters to make them and Grace realistic and sympathetic. It's a tough world, after all, even for the competitive, upper-crust bitches.

Grace's father, meanwhile, her port in the storm, is fairly flat. His own revelation feels like another subplot on the checklist for Korelitz to tick off as she writes.

But the greatest weakness is Jonathan's absence; the reader only hears what Grace and others say about him. Korelitz could have ramped up the tension and created greater anxiety for Grace if she had brought Jonathan actively into the narrative, dropping hints that she had been sleeping beside a psychopath for nearly 20 years. We can't judge if that diagnosis is accurate since we don't know him.

Still, Korelitz works in issues about the angst of climbing the social ladder, fears of middle age and, on a shallow level, the metamorphosis of American Jewish culture. A native New Yorker who now lives in Princeton, N.J., she takes Grace through the streets of one of the world's greatest cities -- always an interesting tour.

You Should Have Known is Korelitz's fourth novel. She also wrote Admission, which became a motion picture last year, starring Tina Fey as a college admissions officer convinced she has met the son she gave up for adoption.

Despite significant flaws, women identify with the protagonists in chick-lit. Witness the success of the Bridget Jones franchise and Sex in the City.

Aficionados can throw this novel in a straw bag. Looking outdoors right now it's hard to believe, but summer will finally come, and you'll need something for the beach.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.


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Updated on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:15 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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