In this post-Gone Girl era, there is no happy-looking marriage in a thriller without a toxic backyard jungle of resentment and deception, a preserve where dark things lurk until the appropriate time. For the heroine of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s fifth novel, You Should Have Known, the awareness of this territory of betrayal comes at a professional as well as a personal price, but the book mines social expectation more than suspense to explore the ramifications of that discovery.
Psychologist Grace Reinhart Sachs is publishing her first book, also titled You Should Have Known, distilling her observations about women’s willful blindness to early warning signs in relationships and how they can date and mate smarter. When a shocking death at her son Henry’s tony private school interrupts her progress, Grace feels more than capable at taking over while her husband Jonathan is at a medical conference—until she can’t reach him, and the police show up at her door asking about his relationship with the deceased. As Jonathan makes himself scarce, Grace re-examines their life together while trying to retrace her husband’s steps before the judgmental mothers at Henry’s school do—or, worse, the New York Post.
Grace’s discoveries about Jonathan inevitably lead her to castigate herself for the kind of blind spot she tries to root out in her clients, leading the novel temporarily down a didactic path. Frankly, this isn’t as interesting as the roads by which she makes these discoveries, and the comeuppance plot at times feels punitive. The reconstruction of Grace and Henry’s life gets short shrift for a while, but soon assumes paramount placement in the narrative as Grace navigates among her previous choices, upholding some and discarding others. The economic underpinnings of Jonathan’s betrayal are a fundamental yet understated part of Grace’s dilemma; her income, while decent, is secondary to the family’s, and Henry’s school provides ample reminders of how comparatively tenuous the Sachs family’s position is. Korelitz, the author of novel Admission, (the basis for last year’s Tina Fey-Paul Rudd comedy), often addresses similar disparities in her work but You Should Have Known is her frankest. How Grace will recover financially and emotionally are intertwined, and the book acknowledges that elegantly.
That Grace will weather her ordeal, no matter what she uncovers, is so intrinsically baked into her character it doesn’t create much tension, but Korelitz’s strength in equipping her character with that attribute frees her to react in a more grounded, realistic way to her uncommon circumstances. The dread at revisiting the assumptions on which this relationship was built becomes a study of trust and self-knowledge in all marriages, not just this extreme case.