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Pride and Privilege: On Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance

By posted at 12:00 pm on July 26, 2013 1

coverJoanna Hershon’s novel A Dual Inheritance has earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal, along with glowing blurbs from seemingly everybody at the Brooklyn writers cool kids’ table. Jennifer Egan called it “a big, captivating sweep of a romance.” Victor LaValle compared Hershon to Anne Tyler and Tom Wolfe. Not to be outdone, Joanna Smith Rakoff compared A Dual Inheritance to the work of Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, John Cheever, Chaim Potok, and Charles Dickens. Not bad, right? Yet Hershon’s novel, her fourth, has not been reviewed by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Bookforum, or much of anybody else. The Boston Globe had some nice things to say about it, and a bunch of book bloggers have weighed in here and there, but otherwise this sprawling, ambitious novel about money and class in late-20th-century America has slipped into the pool of the culture with barely a ripple.

Maybe the good folks running the VIDA count are on to something, huh?

Granted, I have no hard evidence that the big dogs of the book-review world passed over Hershon’s book merely because it was written by a woman. Maybe Hershon’s publicist was out of town the week her book came out in May. Maybe The New York Times just isn’t all that into sprawling, ambitious novels about money and class in late-20th century America. But two things I do know. One, I only heard about this book because its author sent the staff writers at The Millions a sweet note asking whether we might wish to review it. Two, if Jeffrey Eugenides had written this book — and, with a few tweaks of ethnic representation and thematic concern, he very well could have — they would have plastered his Greek-American mug across another billboard in Times Square, and every serious book review in this country would be rushing to tell us whether the book was any good.

In fact, the book is very good. A Dual Inheritance is that most pleasing of literary beasts: a novel of ideas wrapped up in a big, sudsy intergenerational saga of screwed-up families and soul-destroying love triangles. The book takes its title from a scientific theory that argues, as Hershon puts it in an author’s note, that “human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution.” Hershon tests this proposition by following the fates of two very different Harvard men: Ed Cantowitz, a working-class Boston Jew with dreams of striking it rich in business, and Hugh Shipley, a scion of a prominent New England WASP family deeply uncomfortable with the world of wealth and privilege that he has been born into.

I won’t reveal how Hershon resolves her little experiment — the results are fairly muted, in any case — but it doesn’t really matter because, luckily for the reader, Hershon is far more interested in people than behavioral theory. Early in the novel, which begins in 1962, when Ed and Hugh are students at Harvard, the pair strike up an unlikely, but deep friendship, and fall in love with the same woman, the beautiful and privileged Helen Ordway. Hugh marries her and moves to Africa, where he tries to assuage his guilt over his inherited wealth by doing good works, while Ed moves into New York finance, winning and losing great fortunes all the while still pining for Helen, the great shiksa goddess.

Hershon has a bit of a taste for the unlikely, and in a few cases her plot complications snag on the horns of implausibility. Hugh and Ed’s daughters, for instance, though raised half a world apart, not only end up at the same small New England prep school, but also attend college together at Columbia. Couldn’t one of them at least have gone to NYU? But plot contrivance is one of the necessary building blocks of fiction, and in the case of A Dual Inheritance, the richness of Hershon’s characters and the varied worlds she has them inhabit more than make up for any minor questions of believability.

This is a truly globe-trotting novel that bounces expertly between Dar es Salaam, Haiti, Wall Street, newly industrializing southern China, as well as working-class Jewish Boston, and the clubby island retreat of Fishers Island. It is rare in this age of voice-driven fiction, in which success is defined as nailing one very particularized social milieu, to see a writer attempt even half this number of varied settings. And if it is true that the scenes set in the U.S. feel more widely populated and less narratively schematic than the ones set in the more exotic locales, it is also true that there isn’t a single stereotyped character or setting in the entire book.

But where the book truly excels is in its vivid portrayal of how money and social class shape the lives of its characters. The book begins at Harvard in the Kennedy years, the precise moment when waves of ambitious children of immigrants began to harness the power of the SAT exam and the G.I. Bill to tear down the old boy’s network that had held sway at Ivy League universities for generations. Just a few years earlier, a smart young Jew like Hershon’s Ed Cantowitz would have had a much harder time getting into Harvard, and yet there he is, the son of a steamfitter, rubbing shoulders with Helen Ordway’s father, who runs a prestigious Wall Street firm, on a vacation at Fishers Island.

When the elder Ordway offers young Ed a job at his bank, Ed recalls a lesson about the mental habits of the upper crust that he picked up from his friend Hugh:

People like my father — and I know this makes no sense — they actually have no respect for their own. The money gets passed down, and, with it, a deep distrust. The money undermines every decision you make. They give you the money so they can say: What would you do without it?

If A Dual Inheritance can be said to have a central argument, this is it: that money — or the lack thereof — draws often invisible boundaries around our lives. Ed’s distaste for his humble background fuels his burning desire to beat the wealthy Brahmin at their own game. (“I’m afraid my own interests are simple,” Ed tells Mr. Ordway that weekend. “I’d like to build a fortune.”) Meanwhile, Hugh dashes off to Africa, trying to escape his family’s money and the oppressive burden of class-guilt that comes along with it. And yet, as Ed acidly notes, he and Helen still marry each other, just as countless numbers of their ancestors have done before them.

But Hershon’s real insight is that, while money and social class shape our lives, we are still ultimately human beings who chafe against the societal ties that bind. Each of her central characters begins with his or her life mapped out, and spends the novel subverting these expectations. What keeps you reading, though, is the toll this exercise of free will exacts on the characters. You cheer when, in the earlier pages, Ed Cantowitz realizes his dream of upending tradition-bound Wall Street and makes his fortune, but, later, on as his ambition leads him in more sordid directions, you can’t help but be riveted by his struggle to maintain his image of himself as a decent man.

So many contemporary novels on the subject of wealth and privilege, because they hew so close to the characters’ point of view, end up taking the money for granted — the stately mansions, the prestigious jobs, the designer clothes all become like the weather, kept safely in the background, unremarked upon until the author feels the need to send in a hurricane to move the plot along. Because Hershon is working with a much older form, the social novel, and because the novel spans half a century, she is able to bring these societal and economic forces into the foreground, in a sense making them characters in their own right that the human characters must contend with.

In this way, though most of the novel’s nearly 500 pages take place before the millennium, A Dual Inheritance is very much a book for this moment. America, which spent much of the 20th century flattening the income curve, has spent the three decades since the election of Ronald Reagan bending it back again. While it is no longer a shock to see a Jew or any other racial or religious minority at Harvard, the collapse of these barriers masks a sharp decline in social and economic mobility, to the point that is now harder for a child to rise out of poverty in America than it is Canada or much of Western Europe.

American fiction, if it’s going to remain relevant, needs to quit gazing at its own navel — pull back from its relentless focus on individual voice and idiosyncratic experience — and start examining some of these larger social trends. Hershon not only does this with A Dual Inheritance, but she does it in a way that is compulsively readable and emotionally satisfying. Hershon happens to be a woman, but there is nothing especially feminine about her novel. It is a smart, well-written book that speaks to the era of insecurity we are all living through, and it deserves all the press it can get.





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One Response to “Pride and Privilege: On Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance”

  1. Phyllis
    at 5:27 pm on March 11, 2014

    The fact that Ed and Hugh’s daughters wind up at the same college is certainly no more remarkable than the true life story of the two test tube young women, strangers from California ,who wound up at Tulane and found that both their moms had used the same sperm donor and therefore they were half sisters! Truth is truly stranger than fiction.

    If you read that circumstance in a book you would surely be incredulous.

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