Confession time: If you didn't like Grace very much at first, it's okay. The author, Jean Hanff Korelitz, recognizes that she hasn't ever written a female character she didn’t want to slap.
What a relief. We thought we were the only ones who felt that way. Grace is incredibly judgmental and obnoxiously intelligent—meaning she'll drop a reference to Procrustes or Willy Loman in the middle of a casual conversation and then feel superior when her colleagues don't get it.
In fact, Korelitz's writing style amplifies Grace's unlikability. Readers hear every judgmental thought, random memory, and unspoken opinion that pops into Grace's mind. We'd like to consider ourselves good eggs, but if people were monitoring all of our thoughts, they might not like us much either.
However, as Grace herself suggests to a patient who calls her out for her holier-than-thou behavior, likability is overrated: "Maybe, in spite of what you perceive as my lack of warmth, you've come to believe that I can help you" (9.167).
Help is a strong word for the role of a fictional character, but it's a good reminder that Grace doesn't need to be perfect to be an interesting, effective protagonist. Grab your trusty therapist notepad and come along as we explore Grace's psyche.
Grace's life before she learns about Malaga's murder seems fairly cushy. She has a thriving therapy practice, a strong marriage, and a wonderful son. Why shouldn't she write an advice book about picking the perfect partner? She has it all together, right?
For a woman who's encouraged her patients and readers not to marry a fictional character they've created in their minds, Grace seems to have done just that. "She might have seen him first in sweatpants and a far from pristine Hopkins T-shirt, but soon after that she had gleefully purged most of what he had...and taken him shopping for corduroys and khakis and striped button-down shirts, all of which he continued to wear to this day" (13.31). Look, it's a Choose-Your-Own-Wardrobe Dream Husband!
Continuing her self-created fiction, Grace also puts Jonathan and his career on a pedestal. Whenever she's discussing his pediatric oncology work with others, she's constantly "dreading" their don't-know-how-he-does-it comments (Note: We used the "air bunnies" because Grace dreads talking about his career like Shelley in Accounting dreads talking about the one-of-a-kind scarf she got in Venice...which is to say, not at all).
Grace feels like she's part of an exclusive club because she does know how he does it: It's meaningful work, so it's worth it. Not only does she think his work is heroic, but he's also better than all the other doctors because he's so charming and cares so much about his young patients, despite his own supposedly awful childhood.
Unfortunately, her rose-colored glasses regarding Jonathan's career are also the perfect blinders. When Jonathan says he has to work late again or won't make it to a family dinner, Grace is quick to overlook his absences because his work is just so important. She even talks herself out of resenting Jonathan when he doesn't show up to the fundraising auction she organized.
Part of the reason she's so painfully slow to catch on to the reality of her situation—namely, that her husband has disappeared after killing his mistress—is because she is fully in love with Fictional Jonathan, who would never do such a thing.
In reality, Grace is at the risk of becoming another one of Jonathan's victims. Instead of killing her physically like Malaga, he's been slowly killing her soul for the duration of their marriage. He strategically isolated her from anyone who saw through his "Mr. Wonderful" act: her lifelong best friend (Vita), his co-workers, and even his own family. As Vita notes when the two women finally reconnect, Jonathan molded himself into Grace's version of the perfect man, allowing her to believe in the fantasy while getting away with all sorts of unsavory deeds.
Even if you're one of Grace's most ardent detractors, you can't help but feel horrified by the sheer scope of revelations she's forced to confront. When the facade of Grace's carefully curated life falls away, she realizes she's nowhere near as perfect as she thought she was.
Thankfully, this realization leads Grace to some massive self-reflection after fleeing to the lake house with her son Henry. As she enjoys her first cigarette since she met Jonathan—it would be a bad vibe for a cancer doctor to be married to a smoker—she realizes how much she let her life center around him:
"Now, inhaling and then watching the white smoke rise, she felt as if some great Pause button had been depressed when Jonathan stepped into her life, and only this instant had the finger come away and released her forward motion, and suddenly she was back at precisely that earlier moment, a college student again, with most of the big decisions and the big events still before her. Though this time she had been issued with a child and a nominal profession. And a book about to be published. Or so it had been when she'd left the city." (17.291-292)
As Grace begins to rebuild her life, she discovers her "authentic self": an understanding daughter, a protective mother, and a music lover. Without Jonathan's lies clouding her reality, she decides to learn more about her ex-husband's "authentic self" as well. She meets with Jonathan's old boss and visits his parents to get their side of the story (Spoiler alert: None of it's good).
Rather than continuing to be shocked by the truth as she was when she lived in New York, she seems much more open to accepting reality and moving on. It doesn't take her long at all to find a new community of friends, colleagues, and even a potential love interest.
By the time she gets a cryptic letter from Jonathan with instructions on where to find him, she's able to recognize that it's all a bunch of self-serving drivel and calls the cops. The Grace who thought he hung the moon would never have been able to do that.
As she says to Detective O'Rourke in the book's final pages, she's become a different person entirely than the one who wrote a victim-blaming treatise on failed relationships. As readers, we've observed her life before Jonathan disappeared, watched her entire world implode when she learned the truth, and rooted for her as she found a new sense of normalcy. We like this new Grace better.