Study Guide

You Should Have Known Analysis

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

  • What's Up With the Title?

    For starters, You Should Have Known is the title of not only this book, but Grace's book as well. The book-within-the-book is a blunt look at relationships, encouraging people to pay attention to what potential partners reveal about themselves instead of crafting a perfect "guy meets girl and they live happily ever after story."

    How is it remotely possible for someone who considers herself such a expert on human relationships to be so blind to her own husband's psychopathy? A reviewer for the (actual) New York Times suggests that the title of Grace's book-within-the-book is like "the clanging of an alarm, the product of Grace's own subconscious raging to be heard."

    That's as good an explanation as any, although we'd like to suggest another one: Perhaps the phrase "You should have known" applies to more characters in the story than solely Grace. Jonathan should have known his lies would catch up with him eventually. Malaga should have known not to hook up with a married man and expect him to leave his family because she was pregnant...again. Jonathan's family should have known he'd lie to Grace about his upbringing and keep her away from them. Almost every character in this book could have benefited from a reality check somewhere in their past.

    As for Grace, there are many times readers wish they could shake some sense into her, but since the story isn't only about Jonathan's betrayal, we have one more positive twist to the title: She should have known she was strong enough to find her happily-ever-after without him.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    In the final scene, Grace is packing up the old apartment, making her relocation to the lakehouse permanent. While the prospect of leaving the only home you've ever known because your husband is an international fugitive who murdered his mistress may seem stressful, Grace is strangely Zen about it—the enormity of the task at hand keeps her too busy to be sad.

    She attempts to resell her beloved Birkin bag because it was a gift from her husband, only to find out it's a fake. Then Detective O'Rourke stops by to tell her they've located Jonathan—not in the Yukon as she expected from Jonathan's letter, but in Brazil. They chit-chat for a minute and then Detective O'Rourke leaves. Grace listens to the elevator lowering him down into the lobby and releasing him onto "the street where she used to live." Roll credits.

    So, a few things: The events of the book take place between Dec. 5 (the committee meeting) and March (this packing-up scene). Considering the absolute hell she's been through, it may feel slightly unrealistic for Grace to be so well-adjusted already. After being married for nearly two decades and then blindsided by the realization that her husband is an actual psychopathic murderer, she's even found a new potential love interest in fiddler-next-door Leo.

    Is this ending a trite way to wrap up such a messy story? Possibly. There are plenty of unanswered questions about Malaga and unexplained lies from Jonathan that Hanff Korelitz doesn't address. However, while the murder certainly jump-started the action in this story, it's important to remember that this story isn't about Malaga or Jonathan—it's about Grace.

    Most people won't ever have to contend with questions as big as the ones on Grace's mind, but sometimes you just don't get all the answers. By ending the book in a seemingly unfinished way, Hanff Korelitz reminds readers that Grace's life is not finished yet either.

  • Setting

    Upper East Side and Rural Connecticut, Present Day

    Little Slice of the Big Apple

    Gossip Girl and Law & Order.
    The Catcher in the Rye and Stuart Little.
    Goodfellas and The Devil Wears Prada.

    There's a reason New York City is a ubiquitous setting for TV shows, books, and movies: In a city that large and diverse, you'll never run out of stories to tell. Setting a novel in the city that never sleeps is a massive undertaking, but Korelitz combats this issue by zooming in—way in—on just a few blocks.

    Grace considers her address on "81st between Madison and Park an ‘under the radar' street, meaning that it boasted no building of particular prestige, no landmark like a church or hospital or private school...Instead there were only four apartment buildings...just a little backwater for families like the one she'd come from and the one she had" (13.13).

    This physical address emphasizes Grace's isolation from other Rearden parents, most of whom live in fancy Park Avenue penthouses or large brownstones. In her apartment on a side street off Park Avenue, she's just close enough to socialize with her wealthy peers, but not close enough to form true friendships.

    It's also worth noting that Grace has lived in this same little slice of the Big Apple for most of her life. As she describes it during one of her character-developing streams of consciousness, she was "born on 77th street and reared on 81st, who now lived, indeed, in the apartment of her childhood and sent her son to the school she herself had attended, who used the dry cleaner her mother had used and still ate in some of the restaurants once favored by her parents…(3.12)".

    That may sound stifling, but it's truly not to Grace. She loves the familiarity of her neighborhood and the lifetime of memories she's made there. It's where she feels most comfortable, and she seems fully content to stay in her bubble—until she physically can't any more.

    Rural Retreat

    On that note, when Grace and Henry flee the media circus and head for her family's lake house, it's about as far outside of her comfort zone as Grace has ever been. Of course, the lake house has been in her family for generations, so it's not like they're moving to Djibouti or something. However, she's never tried to navigate life without Jonathan or life outside her NYC comfort zone, so it's a monumental adjustment.

    Hiding out at the lake house physically isolates them, not just from any nosy reporters, but from their old friends, classmates, and clients as well. Grace even takes the house phone off the hook after somebody calls for her. She's extremely worried that somebody will find them or that they won't handle their new surroundings well.

    As they begin to settle in, though, Grace and Henry actually become more connected to their new community than they were in New York. Henry tries out for the baseball team and makes friends easily at his new school, which turns out to be academically challenging and not full of "backwoods degenerates, glue-sniffing video game addicts who'd finger her son as an aesthete intellectual" (19.2) as had Grace initially feared. You can take the girl out of her judgmental social circle, but you can't take the judgment out of the girl.

    Meanwhile, Grace not only reconnects with Vita but also develops a "friends-first" relationship with musician Leo. His bandmates are more than happy to welcome Grace and Henry into their little gang, if for no other reason than they need more Facebook fans. On a professional level, Grace decides to join a group practice in Connecticut instead of flying solo in her therapy career.

    When a much more content Grace returns to pack up her Upper East Side apartment at the end of the book, she truly seems like a different character than the Grace who didn't know how she'd survive outside of New York just a few months earlier.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    If Grace were assessing the difficulty level of this story, she'd probably give it a much higher score, and we wouldn't blame her—learning that your entire marriage is a lie is a tough hand to be dealt. From a reader's perspective, Korelitz uses a composed vocabulary befitting her ultra-professional protagonist, but there shouldn't be many terms that modern readers haven't seen before.

    With that said, Korelitz drops tons of well-known literary references throughout the novel—some more significant than others—so people who aren't up to speed on their classic lit may wonder why Grace is suddenly ruminating on a Jack London story or having a major emotional crisis over two roads diverging.

  • Old Portraits

    Some people collect seashells or foreign stamps. Grace collects weird art school portraits from flea markets. "They were from the 1940s or ‘50s, of sour-looking models, captured by less than brilliant students. Together they formed a kind of gallery, of unlovely faces and rather judgmental observers" (13.36).

    Good grief, even the artwork in Grace's apartment isn't likeable.

    Her home decor choices emphasize how much of a facade her life truly is—she's going through the motions of being a good wife and mother, all while being watched by this artificial audience.

    However, the portraits take on an entirely new significance just a few paragraphs later when Grace walks into the living room, lost in her memories:

    Jonathan had been there that day...the paintings here, two studies of the same young man—from, undoubtedly, the same art school class, but very different painters...One version of the young man was so stiffly delineated that he bordered on cubism, is classic white button-down shirt and khaki pants rigidly arranged in a posture...that looked profoundly uncomfortable; the other rendered him so breathtakingly sensual that Grace assumed some highly mutual (though necessarily silent) flirtation had been ongoing throughout the class (13.45).

    Hmmm, who else could possibly fit this description? Maybe the man literally sitting in front of these paintings in Grace's memories.

    Korelitz is practically beating readers over the head with symbolism here, although Grace herself doesn't seem to pick up on it, instead ruminating on how crazy it is that two portraits of the same man ended up in the same thrift store. Oh, Grace. Your portraits are judging you for your inability to recognize the obvious.

  • Birkin Bags

    Even if you have no idea what a Birkin bag is, you've almost undoubtedly seen them on the arms of the rich and famous. The Hermès classic bag's owners include Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Pippa Middleton, Sarah Jessica Parker—seriously, the list goes on and on. Don't be fooled by the bag's unassuming design; it carries one extravagant price tag: Depending on the materials, colors, and quantities manufactured, a single Birkin bag ranges from $11,000 to a whopping $300,000. We can't imagine paying that much for a bag even if it once belonged to Mary Poppins, but to each their own.

    Since Birkin bags aren't made of unicorn hair or mermaid scales, they mostly seem to be a status symbol. Basically, the point of having a Birkin bag is to prove you can afford a Birkin bag. Thus, it's the accessory du jour for the one-percenter parents whose children attend Rearden, Henry's private school and Grace's alma mater.

    Even Grace, who mostly considers herself immune to such frivolous matters of the uber-wealthy, covets these bags. When Henry is invited to a party at a fancy Park Avenue penthouse, Grace is thrilled by the possibility of seeing the hostess' massive collection of Birkins. Grace only has one, which she received as a 30th birthday gift from Jonathan and which she maintains exquisitely.

    Grace loves remembering the story of how he obtained it because "poor Jonathan had been made to jump through many hoops down at the Hermes store on Madison, where, in his charming naïveté, he had assumed he could just walk in and purchase a Birkin bag. It was adorable, really" (3.7). Is it still charming naïveté if one literally cannot imagine another way to purchase a bag? That's pretty much the camp we're in. (Editor's note: Here's how.)

    In You Should Have Known, the symbol of the Birkin bags is twofold. For one, it emphasizes Grace's outsider status among the Rearden parents. She pretends not to care that she isn't as wealthy as they are, but her obsessive devotion to cleaning and caring for her Birkin bag proves otherwise.

    In the end, the Birkin bag also proves to be—spoiler alert—a symbol of Jonathan's deceit. As Grace is Marie Kondo-ing her apartment before moving to the lake house permanently, she realizes that even her beautiful Birkin no longer brings her joy since it was a gift from her ex (been there).

    She decides to resell it and brings it to the store, where the saleswoman tells her it's a fake. After all the insane lies that Grace now realizes Jonathan told her over the years, this one is still somehow hard for her to swallow—not only because she adored this bag and loved her husband for realizing how important it was to her, but because his "aw shucks" story of acquiring it made her love him even more.

    In typical Jonathan fashion, he didn't care about deceiving his wife as long as the lie made him look like a good husband. Grace trashes the bogus Birkin, recognizing that letting it go doesn't hurt as much as she thought it would—yet another symbol of her character's transformation.

  • The Klondike

    To clarify, the Klondike in You Should Have Known refers to the frozen Northern tundra, not the delicious chocolate-covered ice cream bar, although that would have been more fun.

    In any case, the Klondike pops up a few times in this book. Jonathan is obsessed with the region: He was reading a book about the Klondike the night they met, had a postcard of Yukon Gold Rush pilgrims in his dorm room, and loves Jack London's short story "To Build A Fire." There isn't anything he wouldn't do for a Klondike bar―sorry, we're still thinking about the ice cream.

    Grace explains the Klondike's symbolism herself when she meets with Vita and begins to consider restarting her career as a therapist. Vita offers to help her join a group practice, and Grace realizes how thoroughly she has put her therapy career out of her mind, as if she watched it float away on an ice floe.

    Which only meant that she herself was now stranded on some arctic edge, perhaps already beginning that long, drifting decline that had so fascinated Jonathan. In that story, the one he had loved, about the man and the dog and the lost fire, the man makes only one single panicked bolt for survival before giving up, letting the sweet numb cold pull him out of life, but the dog trots onward, thoughtlessly in search of another man and another fire. He isn't tortured about it. He's just programmed to live. That was Jonathan, she supposed. If one scenario didn't work out, you just trotted along through the snow to the next. (19.348-349)

    While most dog lovers would take issue with this depiction of man's best friend, the image fits Jonathan to a T. No wonder he's so fascinated with the Klondike—he too is a lone wolf, concerned only with his survival and wholly unaffected by the suffering he leaves behind.

    Of course, it's possible Jonathan's love of all things Yukon is just another mask he wears. His letter to Grace in the book's final chapters gives Grace very specific instructions for how to join him in Canada, down to describing a Klondike-related landmark where he'll wait for her.

    In typical Jonathan fashion, he's finally found in Brazil, making his Arctic fascination yet another symbol of his deception. Yukon should have known.

  • Hospital Land

    "Hospital Land" is the nickname Jonathan and Grace give to the area of town where all the hospitals are—a little on the nose, but it makes sense. Not only do these few blocks encompass all the major hospitals in the city, but many doctors and hospital staffers live there, and the shops all cater to their needs. Grace thinks of the hospitals as their own worlds: "They were dramatic stages on which an incalculable number of great stories (mostly tragic) were playing on a perpetual loop: scenes of recognition and reversal, religious fervor, redemption and reconciliation, cataclysmic loss." (10.178).

    Unsurprisingly, Grace considers Jonathan the white knight of Hospital Land:

    He had the exact same kind of intensity with absolutely everyone, king or commoner in the land, an avid interest and a need for connection…[He] was so respectful not just of your child, but of you, [and he] thought deeply about the human experience your child's illness had created, even as he labored to relieve suffering (10.178-79).

    Yeah, he's a real prince.

    Since Grace is so caught up in the idea of Hospital Land, the actual humans who live and work there are reduced to one-dimensional characters: Jonathan's supervisor, Ross Waycaster, is so blunt that heroic, compassionate Jonathan has consoled Waycaster's patients weeping in the hallways. Fellow resident Rena Chang believes in parallel healing strategies, so she's cast as a flighty hippie. Dr. Robertson Sharp III becomes Robertson Sharp-the-Turd, playing the role of the out-of-touch, by-the-book administrator.

    Of course, as Grace has advised her own patients, the problem with inventing fictional stories about the people in your life is that those stories are usually not true. In reality, Dr. Waycaster was the only person brave enough to call Jonathan out for his affair with Malaga, Dr. Rena Chang was Jonathan's mistress, Dr. Robertson Sharp III saw right through Jonathan's superficial charm all along, and Jonathan himself is nobody's hero.

    Grace's description of Hospital Land is another example of her willingness to ignore her better judgment. We can absolutely guarantee that Therapist Grace would raise her judgmental eyebrows at any patient who came into her office spinning such tales of heroism and tragedy, never considering that there might be more than one side to the fairy tale.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person, Limited

    Literary purists would describe this book's narrative technique as "third person limited," but the limitations are so extreme that we think it's fair to say the narration is almost written from a first-person POV.

    In case it's been a minute since you reviewed your 6th grade English class notes, here's a refresher: In first-person narratives, the narrator is the main character in the story: "I ran to the door when I saw the Amazon Prime delivery Subaru carrying my new portable burrito heater."

    In a typical third person limited narration, the narrator is not a character in the story; they just observe the thoughts and actions of a particular character: "She ran to the door when she saw the Amazon Prime delivery Subaru carrying her new portable burrito heater."

    While Hanff Korelitz's pronoun choices fit the third person technique, Grace is the narrator of You Should Have Known for all intents and purposes. Only one major sentence in the middle of Chapter Nine (9.148) reveals something to the reader that Grace herself doesn't know. Beyond that, the reader notices what she notices, hears her musings and memories, and never even reads a description of another character without it going through Grace's opinionated filter first. Korelitz's writing style is practically a stream of Grace's consciousness with all of her random asides and unrelated thoughts.

    The technique is particularly effective in this book because it simultaneously puts the reader inside Grace's mind while maintaining some distance. Grace isn't exactly the type of person who wants to get all warm and fuzzy with people, but if the narration were so removed that we couldn't hear her inner monologue, readers might find it even more difficult to care about her.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Betty MacDonald (1.3)
      • Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1.11)
      • Book of Kells (2.30)
      • L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (3.59)
      • Hedonism (3.67)
      • Steven Birmingham, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York (5.84)
      • The Bible, Ezekiel 1:15-21 (5.91)
      • Beatrix Potter, The Tailor of Gloucester (5.93)
      • Franz Kafka, The Trial (5.93)
      • Ellen Fein and Sherry Schneider, The Rules (10.175, 10.181)
      • Truman Capote (10.181)
      • Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (10.183)
      • Dante, Inferno (12.203-204)
      • Jack London, To Build a Fire (13.214, 19.348)
      • Elizabeth Bowen, The Demon Lover (13.217)
      • William Golding, Lord of the Flies (13.221-222)
      • C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (13.223)
      • Stephen King (13.229)
      • John Grisham (13.229)
      • Jean Auel (13.229)
      • The Bible, Job 38:11 (13.234)
      • James Fenton, A German Requiem (13.237)
      • Dorothy Parker (15.261)
      • Mary A. Wilson, Mrs. Wilson's Cookbook (16.272)
      • Lizzie Black Kander, The Settlement Cookbook (16.272)
      • Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (17.293, 19.344)
      • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (18.315, 19.323)
      • Jonathan Swift (19.323)
      • Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (19.323)
      • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (19.323)
      • David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross (19.330)
      • Voltaire (19.330)
      • Edith Wharton (19.333)
      • Zen Buddhism (19.338)
      • Lillian Hellman, The Children's Hour (19.343)
      • The Bible, Armageddon in the Book of Revelation (21.375)
      • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (22.390)
      • J.K. Rowling, Quidditch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (23.406)

      Historical References

      • Shaker Tree of Life (2.36)
      • Elysium, from Greek mythology (3.55)
      • Mayflower (3.58)
      • Johann Sebastian Bach, Violin Sonata no. 1 in G Minor (3.63, 23.414)
      • Siren songs, from Greek mythology (5.83)
      • Rembrandt sculptures (5.89)
      • Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention (5.92)
      • 9/11 terror attack (8.125, 15.264)
      • Baroque chamber music (8.134)
      • Luddites (8.134)
      • Libby Zion Law (9.147)
      • Procrustes, from Greek mythology (11.193)
      • George Friederic Handel (11.195)
      • Asclepius, from Greek mythology (12.207)
      • George Balanchine, choreographer (13.226)
      • Watergate scandal (13.228)
      • Vietnam War (13.228)
      • President Ronald Reagan (13.228)
      • Senator Joe McCarthy (13.228)
      • Civil Rights Movement (13.228)
      • Iran-Contra scandal (13.228)
      • Meleager, from Greek mythology (14.224)
      • Emily Post (14.241)
      • World War II (16.274)
      • B.F. Skinner (16.276)
      • Lou Gehrig (17.289, 17.291)
      • N**** league baseball (17.294)
      • Johann Strauss, Blue Danube (18.308)
      • Mount Parnassus, from Greek mythology (19.320)
      • Civil War (19.323)
      • Margaret Mead (19.323)
      • EPA Superfund cleanup (19.333)
      • Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon (23.416)
      • Rosetta Stone (23.418)

      Pop Culture References

      • Vogue magazine (all of Chapter 1, 17.292)
      • Tom Colicchio (1.9)
      • More magazine (1.10)
      • Associated Press (1.10, 20.362)
      • New York magazine (1.20, 4.75, 10.183, 17.288)
      • Matt Lauer (1.22)
      • Ellen DeGeneres (1.22)
      • Eliot Porter (1.25)
      • Broadway Kids (1.32)
      • Bye Bye Birdie (2.49-50)
      • One Life to Live (4.70)
      • McMansions (4.73)
      • Elaine Stritch (4.75)
      • Stephen Sondheim (4.75)
      • Wendy Wasserstein (4.75)
      • The Temple of Dendur, art exhibit at The Met (5.80)
      • Vanity Fair magazine (5.81)
      • Architectural Digest magazine (5.81)
      • Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (5.88, 7.112)
      • Anna Wintour (5.89)
      • The Today show (6.99, 17.292)
      • New York Post (6.104, 15.266, 17.288, 20.362)
      • The New York Times (7.123, 10.171, 17.288, 19.349)
      • Law & Order (8.125)
      • Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (8.129)
      • Masterpiece Theatre (8.131)
      • Alison Krauss (8.134)
      • UrbanBaby, an NYC mom gossip site (8.137)
      • New Yorker (8.140)
      • Bobby Short (8.140)
      • NY1, cable news in NYC (8.149, 9.161, 17.288)
      • The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan musical (9.154)
      • Quentin Tarantino (9.160)
      • Page Six (9.162)
      • "Rosebud," Citizen Kane (9.166)
      • Good Morning America (9.166)
      • The View, Barbara Walters (10.171)
      • Dr. Laura (10.175)
      • Martha Stewart (10.177)
      • Daily Beast (10.181)
      • William Greenberg, NYC pastry chef (11.195)
      • Rubik's cube (12.204)
      • Elsa Peretti, Tiffany & Co. jewelry designer (13.230, 13.233 )
      • Cosmopolitan magazine (14.239)
      • John Lennon (14.245)
      • Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer (14.249)
      • Ben & Jerry's ice cream (16.281)
      • Ken Burns documentaries (17.294)
      • People magazine (17.298)
      • 2001, sci-fi movie (18.301)
      • Hayao Miyazaki (19.322)
      • Forrest Gump (19.324)
      • Tim Burton (20.351)
      • Charlie Daniels, The Devil Went Down to Georgia (23.416)
      • Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog film (24.435)