The fictions of a flourishing marriage in Korelitz's new novel

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel is about self-deception, says Richard Fitzpatrick.

The fictions of a flourishing marriage in Korelitz's new novel

THE American novelist, Jean Hanff Korelitz is in Ireland this week to read alongside her husband, the poet, Paul Muldoon, as part of the Cork Spring Poetry Festival.

As a writer, Korelitz is interested in the lies we tell ourselves. She will publish her fifth novel, You Should Have Known, in March. The title is the name of a book written by Korelitz’s protagonist, Grace, a therapist, on why relationships fail.

Grace thinks she has a talent for social observation, that she can see “the snares” people set for themselves, and sense “how not to fall into them”. Her self-help book is just about “to snag the Zeitgeist”.

Grace’s thesis is that women delude themselves when picking men.

They’re blinded by the need for narrative — to save the man, or that they’re “already the heroine and here comes my hero”. They fail to read their self-deception, unwilling to notice the signs that tell them an embezzler, a liar, or a womaniser stands before them.

“Like many people,” says Korelitz, “I’m fascinated by the fact that we willfully ignore things about the people we think we know best. I’ve seen so many intelligent women standing behind their politician husbands — who’ve just revealed themselves to be adulterers or addicts or felons — looking absolutely stunned.

“You ask yourself: ‘how could she not have known’? I wondered how much more interesting it would be if the woman in question was supposedly an expert on human behaviour, and highly capable of sensing subterfuge in her patients’ spouses.”

Jonathan is Grace’s man. Perhaps Grace should have sensed him early on. She admits — to herself, but not to her agent, editor or publicist — that she knew the minute they met she would marry him.

His parents sidestepped their small wedding, but there was so much to love about him, including his mop of curly, black hair and the fact that he had a noble profession as “a doctor for kids with cancer”. They have a 12-year-old son.

Things start to go awry for Grace when she can’t contact Jonathan, who is in the Midwest at a medical conference.

Korelitz’s mother was a therapist, but Korelitz doesn’t profess any special insight on choosing the right life partner. “The only thing I do know is that people who proselytise about marriage are seldom to be trusted on the subject, which is another reason why Grace’s character takes such a major fall. Hers is a real case of ‘physician, heal thyself’,” Korelitz says.

Korelitz’s last novel, Admission, was turned into a movie last year. It stars Lily Tomlin, the great character actor and writer, Wallace Shawn, Tina Fey (one of American entertainment’s hottest tickets), and Korelitz’s teenage son in a cameo.

Fey plays an admissions officer at a prestigious American university — Princeton, where Muldoon is a professor of creative writing. She discovers an applicant is the child she gave up for adoption when she was a college student. The revelation disrupts her “carefully ordered life”.

The film adaptation has a lighter touch than Korelitz’s more literary, cerebral novel.

Korelitz said she cried on first reading the screenplay, but laughed on the second read. She received the screenplay by email, which she read on her phone while driving with her husband. She was aghast that the adoption revelation, which appears on page 318 in her novel, was early in the film script. She calls it her “smelling salts moment”. She came around, though, appreciating that film adaptations have a different narrative arc to novels.

Korelitz says one of the most rewarding aspects of being a writer is “control: being able to live in your head, make things up and control the destiny of your characters. Being able to play with language all day.” Huge chunks of the writer’s control are, of course, ceded in the collaborative process of filmmaking.

Korelitz spent a year living in Ireland in the mid-1980s, at the beginning of her relationship with Muldoon — first in Belfast, and then for a spell in Dingle. She was surprised by the respect Ireland affords its writers.

“In any other country,” Korelitz says, “the term ‘famous poet’ would have been an oxymoron, but in Ireland everyone knew who Séamus Heaney was, and everyone revered him. You’d probably have to go back to Edgar Allan Poe to find an American poet as widely read, and as powerfully appreciated, in this country.”

Korelitz comes from writing stock. The late Helene Hanff, author of 84, Charing Cross Road, was a cousin. Muldoon said in an interview with the Paris Review that his wife is “a terrific reader” of his poems, “and, as you might imagine, doesn’t think twice about telling me where I’ve gone wrong”.

Korelitz says that Muldoon doesn’t give her much feedback on her fiction, because he’s not a big reader of novels. As to the pros and cons of being married to a fellow writer:

“Best thing: he knows what I mean when I say: ‘Can’t talk! Working!’. We’ve sidestepped most of the worst stuff, because we don’t write in the same genre.

“If I still wrote poetry — I switched to fiction many years ago — I might have a far less sunny take on this question. I don’t think I would like to be a poet married to Paul Muldoon.”

nJean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known, will be published by Faber & Faber in March; she will read at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival, with Paul Muldoon, at 10pm, Friday, February 14 at the Cork Arts Theatre, Carroll’s Quay, Cork. For more information, visit:

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