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Editorial Reviews Review

A Guest Review of “A Dual Inheritance,” by Joanna Hershon

By Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer's novels include The Interestings; The Uncoupling; The Ten-Year Nap; The Position; and The Wife. She is also the author of a novel for young readers, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. Wolitzer's short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. In September 2013, along with singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, she will be a guest artist in the Princeton Atelier program at Princeton University.

To open a novel when your characters are in college is to invite the reader into a world that’s just beginning. In her excellent new novel, A Dual Inheritance, Joanna Hershon offers up two protagonists, Ed and Hugh, a Jew and a WASP, two men with very different economic and cultural backgrounds, sensibilities and internal compasses, at the exact moment when they first meet at Harvard in 1962. Her observations of college life in that era are casually and unselfconsciously rendered:

“They went to Adams House and drank gin with limes, and Ed met the head of the drama club and a Crimson writer whose work he admired. Ed watched as girls approached Hugh and Hugh ignored their not-so-subtle invitations. Ed marveled at how, like preening birds, they offered their pale necks, their bosoms, arranged their jewelry to catch the light as if lighting were the issue.”

But this is not a college novel at all, and in fact Harvard is just the springboard to many other places, among them Africa, Haiti and Shenzhen, China, all rendered with authenticity and lightness of touch. It’s a pleasure to see such a close-grained writer use the world as freely as her characters do, and not feel compelled to huddle in a small square of real estate, somehow thinking that that’s the best way to emphasize her protagonists’ interior lives. Interior and exterior lives are given equal shrift here, in a novel that is both psychologically complex and observant in matters of place and time. The latter becomes important as Hershon ambitiously powers her two men across not just continents but also across decades.

A novel of friendship can be harder to pull off than, say, a family novel, in which the characters’ connection is readymade, and it isn’t all that hard to arrange to put two people in the same room every once in a while (think holidays). Though in real life, friends can go a very long time without seeing each other, and though a relationship can shift overtly or microscopically, only a patient, knowing writer allows herself to take the time needed to approximate the rhythms of a long and complicated friendship.

It’s wonderful to see a novelist give her characters lives that are messy and let them engage in relationships that can be baffling. There’s a love triangle here, and a satisfying generational storyline. Neither Hugh nor Ed are given the “curfew” that a more anxious and intrusive writer might insist upon as a way to control the narrative. Instead, they are allowed to unspool, revealing themselves to the reader slowly, subtly, over the course of this observant novel of friendship, love, class and fate.

Joanna Hershon on A Dual Inheritance

Joanna Hershon

I’ve always been fascinated by distinct places and periods of time in which unlikely friendships are possible. My last novel was about German settlers in the American Southwest during the mid-1800s. During the writing process, I realized that what compelled me most about this time and place was not just the historical details--so fascinating and unlike our modern existence--but what fertile ground it was for improbable relationships to blossom.

The protagonists of my new novel, A Dual Inheritance, meet in a more prosaic way--at college--than did those 19th century pioneers, but Harvard in the early 1960s had its own set of charms and challenges. Because of their wildly different backgrounds, issues of class and money beset best friends Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley, though more salient is how they both identify as outsiders. But what happens to such a bond over time? How much do their different backgrounds ultimately matter?

Their story takes the reader all over the globe (Dar es Salaam, Shenzhen, Haiti; the wilds of Wall Street) and spans two generations, encompassing a cast of characters to whom I hope you’ll grow just attached as I have. This is the story of two lives converging and—just as quickly—diverging; it’s the surprising, even shocking reverberations of one brief friendship.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This multigenerational saga spanning almost five decades kicks off with the meeting of Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley at Harvard. The driven Jew and the aimless blue blood couldn’t be more different, but Ed’s persistence with the laconic Hugh cements their friendship. When the love of Hugh’s life, Helen Ordway, comes back into the picture, the three become an inseparable trio. Hugh and Helen try, with little success, to find a girlfriend for Ed. Upon graduation, Hugh makes his way to Tanzania to participate in a documentary, while Ed heads to Wall Street to work for Helen’s father. While Hugh falls into aid work overseas, Ed forms a company with three other men and becomes a stunning success. Helen floats in between them, until a rash encounter with Ed sends her back into Hugh’s arms—and causes Ed to cut off contact with the pair. Years later, Hugh and Helen’s daughter, Vivi, befriends Ed’s daughter, Rebecca, at boarding school, bringing the three adults together once again. Sharply observed and masterfully constructed, Hershon’s (The German Bride, 2009) fourth novel is her strongest yet, a deft and assured examination of ambition, envy, longing, and kinship. --Kristine Huntley --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Random House Audio; Unabridged edition (May 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038536055X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385360555
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.6 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,716,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joanna Hershon is the author of four novels: Swimming, The Outside of August, The German Bride, and A Dual Inheritance. Her writing has appeared in (among other places) The New York Times, One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, the literary anthologies Brooklyn Was Mine, Freud's Blind Spot, and Berlin Stories-- a multimedia journal for NPR Worldwide. She's an adjunct assistant professor in the Creative Writing department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons.
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Joanna Hershon has written a wonderful book using a time-worn theme - the difference between wealthy WASPs and poor Jews - and has breathed new light into both her characters and her plot. Beginning her book in Boston in 1962, Hershon's two main characters, Hugh Shipley and Ed Cantowitz, are seniors at Harvard. Hugh's from a wealthy Boston Brahmin family and Ed's the son of a poor Jewish immigrant. To say that Ed is on-the-make may be a bit crude, but that's the truth as Hershon presents him. His goal is to be wildly successful in the financial sector, and after a stint at Harvard Business School and a step-up from Hugh's wealthy father-in-law-to-be, Ed becomes an early venture capitalist. Hugh, on the other hand, already from wealth (though somewhat "tired" wealth) wants to "do-good" in the poor areas of Africa.

Hershon's book is divided up into chapters corresponding with time. Ed, who is in love with Helen, Hugh's girlfriend,and then wife, marries, fathers a daughter, and makes a lot of money. Hugh tends to the sick and dying in, first, Africa, and then Haiti, also has a daughter, and builds up a chain of hospitals. He also drinks. He drinks a lot and cheats on Helen. Neither man lives quite the life they had aimed for as young men and they come back into each other's lives at odd points. Their daughters meet at boarding school and they become lifelong friends.

If I've made both the characters and plot seem rather soap-operaish, I didn't mean to. Hershon draws her characters with a nuanced hand. No caricatures among them. The plot is also fairly complex and, with the characters, adds up to a very satisfying read. If you liked her previous novels - and I've only read "The German Bride" - I'll bet you'll like "A Dual Inheritance".
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Dorothea Brooke on May 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A Dual Inheritance is the kind of novel you get lost in--it is a big, sweeping, involving drama full of vividly rendered characters whose fates you care about deeply. As you read, the real world fades. You want only to be immersed in the fictional world that Hershon has created.

The book follows a handful of characters from their undergraduate years at Harvard in the 1960s to the present day, moving along the way from New York to Africa to the Caribbean and back again, and growing to include the unfolding lives of their children. At the book's center is a love triangle that is gripping and believable without being at all sentimental: the desire to know how it will ultimately unfold for characters we have come to know so well makes it very difficult to put down the book.

Not only are the characters extremely well-drawn--like Jonathan Franzen's, they feel exceptionally vivid and lifelike--Hershon also renders the shifting social and historical context with great precision and intelligence. She writes with a seemingly effortless authority about everything from the changing racial demographics of Boston neighborhoods in the 1970s to the machinations of Wall Street financiers--but she never loses focus on her wonderful cast of characters and the personal dramas that drive the book forward.

This is a book that will be read with great pleasure by anyone who loves an old-fashioned, character-driven novel in the tradition of many of the most beloved nineteenth century novels. I look back with fondness on the weekend I spent lost in its pages and envy those who still have the pleasure of reading the book for the first time to look forward to.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By JAMIE L HARMON on June 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The majority of reviews I've read about this book laud it for its "sweeping" story, spread out "across time and place" and for its "fully-realized" characters. But this is my question: so what?

The reader is left with nothing at the end of the book. We are no closer to answering our own emotional dilemmas, nor have we gathered the slightest insight into why Hershon's characters behave as they do. Things just happen to everyone, and seem to bear no relation to other events or characters.

Ed and Hugh, the characters from whom all others flow here, are polar opposites. We understand clearly that it is their different-ness which binds them, and the beginning of the book is the most enjoyable for that. As their relationships branch out, though, they make less and less sense. Their respective daughters meet at boarding school and despite the fact that they have no reason to, they become best friends without knowing of their parents' connection. They vacation together and a bizarre injury which is apparently pivotal in the author's mind, has no connection to the characters' future or past.

Ed, a successful and mindful investor, is revealed as a fraud--and does prison time-- which is also a non-sequitur. Hugh becomes a dissipated alcoholic and inveterate womanizer, who despite these glaring character flaws, also serves poverty-stricken populations by providing medical care through building clinics. There is no rationale behind his chosen profession, no reason he should be driven to care for others and be such a sleaze ball in his life, but there it is. There is no godly reason he should be the object of Ed's daughter's sexual desires, but again, there it is.
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