This book was originally reviewed in 2015
Grace Reinhart Sachs has it all. A great job, a loving, doctor husband, and a beautiful son. She is even about to start the public relations tour for her first book, You Should Have Known. As a marriage therapist, Grace has walked couples through trying to put it back together and she has counseled them when things have already fallen apart. She sees other people’s problems with great clarity. The thesis of her book, a sort of self help guide to not choosing relationship partners poorly, is that the clues you need to really know someone are always there, but we often choose not to heed them. We turn a blind eye to the less worthy attributes of the ones we fall in love with, when we should have known all along that he or she would do the things that disappoint us later in life. In short, we could avoid the catastrophes of middle age by being more attuned to what our significant other was telling us from the beginning. We Should Have Known.
Grace has a fabulous New York life—a great apartment, private school for her son, the trappings of status and education are all hers, until they aren’t. All it takes is the very public revelation of her own husband’s secret to blow it all up. Facing public humiliation and even ostracism, Grace has to decide how to handle her own problems with the same clarity she has always applied to her clients’.
This novel serves as a mirror to our voyeuristic culture, which seems to take great joy in dragging even innocent people through the mud. We are so quick to judge and so gleeful in that judgment. Do we ever stop to consider how satisfying our desire to revel in sordidness affects others? How it affects ourselves, come to that? Schadenfreud diminishes those who participate in it, and Korelitz uses her characters to show this extremely well. Anyone who has spent time on volunteer committees will see people they recognize. You Should Have Known also explores the theme of victim blaming. Perhaps we blame the victim because we need to reassure ourselves that it could never happen to us. It is true that there are often clues that the victim ignores, but it is infinitely easier to see those clues after the fact, and so much more satisfying to tsk tsk someone.
Through the setting, Korelitz examines modern materialism as well. How much is enough? When Grace steps outside of her New York life, she sees, maybe for the first time, the unimportance of all the things she thought she needed to be happy. She reevaluates her own relationship with money and actually understands how limited the choices might be for a woman in her situation who had none.
The reader is kept in the dark about what Grace’s husband has actually done until almost the end of the novel. This serves to keep the focus on Grace and Henry, her son, rather than on the sensational details of “the event,” and it is an effective device. By the time the reader has the whole picture, she is completely invested in Grace’s story. At times sad, wrenching, even a little shocking, You Should Have Known offers an entertaining read that is also thought provoking.