Monday Match-Up: The Headmaster’s Wife & You Should Have Known

I like the term “match-up” because it has different meanings. It can refer to a head-to-head competition, a pairing or linkage of two similar things, or an investigation of the connections between two things. Often, when I’m reading a book I’m reminded of another book; sometimes the connection is obvious and sometimes it isn’t.

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene,  and You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, are both what I call “literary page-turners”. By that I mean books that are well-written and thought-provoking, with fully developed characters and layers of complexity, but are fairly fast-paced. Both of these books keep the reader guessing, and are somewhat disturbing.

Some readers have found The Headmaster’s Wife more than “somewhat” disturbing. It’s a hard book to review, because revealing the crucial plot element would be a huge spoiler. I got involved in a brief exchange on Twitter with another book blogger, who said she was finding the book extremely “creepy”. My response was “How far into it are you?” Because I knew exactly what she meant, and I wanted to suggest that she might feel differently once she was farther along.

9781250038944The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park.  As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.  As the author said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, “I like to think of it as a bifurcated narrative, and it’s the same story told from two points of view.” There’s a certain similarity to Gone Girl, without the psychopathy. Arthur is a sad and broken man, but not an evil one.

The book is, as I said, a page-turner, with very surprising plot twists (one of my Twitter buddies said it made her “gasp”), but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?” I think book clubs would run out of time before they ran out of discussion material from The Headmaster’s Wife.

25906d314df6192f270fbbc6058c8bceYou Should Have Known is the title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel — and also the title of the self-help book written by the protagonist of the novel, Grace Sachs. Grace is a therapist turned pop psychology author; the thesis of her bestselling book, “You Should Have Known”, is that women ignore early clues that men they are dating are not good husband material. They engage in wishful thinking, and then are surprised when their husbands turn out to be liars, philanderers . . . or worse.

It turns out that Grace is just as clueless as her patients and readers. Her husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, disappears under very suspicious circumstances. According to a Publishers Weekly interview with the author, just because someone is bright and well-educated doesn’t mean she can see what should be obvious:

I started thinking about what I’ve always been interested in: how people can’t see things that are right in front of them. All you have to do is read the papers to see endless examples of smart people who can’t see the nose on their faces. How could the partner of Bernie Madoff not have known what he was up to?

Well, how could she? Is denial of  what seems evident to others criminal, or immoral? Should Grace have known that her husband was a psychopath? Is it fair to blame people for blinding themselves to the truth? Again, great book club discussion questions. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, when Korelitz was asked if she thinks her novel, “like Gone Girl, is part of a fiction trend of not seeing the truth about those we’re closest to?”, she said:

I think that many of us have this fascination with knowing who someone really is. It’s the idea that informs Pride and Prejudice. You make snap judgments about who people are and then bring your own creative energy and personal needs to fill in the gaps and make the person that you want that person to be. In fiction, it’s been a trend for as long as there’s been the novel.

I think Korelitz is absolutely right. People are, and have always been, fascinated by the idea of “the stranger beside me”. (Remember the book by that name by Ann Rule, about Ted Bundy?) In The Headmaster’s Wife, Arthur suffers what might be a psychotic break and becomes a stranger to his wife; in You Should Have Known, Grace discovers that her beloved husband was most likely always a stranger to her.


Early Decision — Book Review

9780062240699The clock is ticking for thousands of privileged high school seniors — the early decision deadlines at top colleges are looming. Lacy Crawford’s roman à clef, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, is a glimpse into the world of an independent college counselor and her clients. The main character in Early Decision is Anne, a 27-year-old Chicagoan with degrees from Princeton and the University of Chicago who’s not quite sure what she wants to do with her life. She stumbles upon a career as a “college whisperer”  to students from wealthy families in Chicago and the North Shore. To the mothers, she’s a shoulder to lean on; to the fathers, she’s a voice of reason; and to the stressed-out teenagers, she’s a buffer between them and their anxious parents. But she wonders why:

. . . she was dating a man who cheated like mad and helping high school kids with their college applications .  . Every year, in late December as the application deadlines were bearing down, Anne swore she would never do it again. And then come spring, the phone calls came.

What I enjoyed most about Early Decision wasn’t the insider’s look at college admissions.  There have been several recent novels on that topic — most notably, Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (made into a terrific movie starring Tina Fey) — as well as a spate of nonfiction accounts. Readers seem to have an endless appetite for information about the mysterious world of college admissions. I am no different — although, having weathered my three children’s college applications, I am growing a little tired of the whole subject. But I think  Early Decision is about much more than college — it’s about what it means to become an independent adult, and what it means to raise productive citizens. What decisions should parents make for children? How do we teach our children to make decisions for themselves? How can young adults gain self-knowledge and take control of their own futures? Anne, as well as her students, is struggling to make a life for herself:

Here is what was going to happen: Anne was going to wake up one morning in full possession of the authority she needed to go out and start her life. To acquire the position she really wanted — whatever that was — and succeed. . . She did not know how to explain why it hadn’t happened yet. She had been careful and diligent. She’d earned terrific grades. There had been classes in college about which she was passionate, and books she underlined so hard she tore the page . . . Her professors loved her, but none of them shared with her the knowledge she needed: How did such work lead to a life full of days? What, exactly, did one do?

Like her protagonist, Lacy Crawford was a private college admissions counselor.  As a high school English teacher, she discovered a talent for helping students with their personal essays for college. Parents began asking her to help their children with the admissions process, and a successful, 15-year career was born. When asked in an interview with The Atlantic why she didn’t write a tell-all memoir, Lacy said:

I have no interest in hurting people who have already been hurt by their parents’ ambition. These are stories of real devastation. And I was able to shine a spotlight on things with fiction that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise . . . I also didn’t want to write a memoir. I don’t have to relive my 20s. It wasn’t that fun the first time.

But reading Early Decision is fun — the humor is satirical without being mean-spirited, the writing is clever and fluid, the main characters are interesting and three-dimensional, and the ending is very satisfying.  Without giving too much away, I can tell you that nearly everyone makes the right decision. There’s an epilogue with updates on the five students that the book follows (four are wealthy, one is the daughter of a maid), as well as on the other characters — including April, Anne’s obnoxious neighbor. If you like ends tied up neatly in a book, this one is for you.

The literal French translation of roman à clef is “novel with a key”. The term originates from 17th century France when it was common for novelists to portray political and public figures masked as fictional characters. There might have been an actual key in the form of epigraphs. Today, the term is used a little more broadly, to describe a book about real events or people, with details obscured. (My favorite roman á clef of all time: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.)