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