Study Guide

You Should Have Known Survival

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Survival

Her world was now very tiny and very sparsely populated. It extended only a breath in any direction. "We're going to be all right," she told him, and then, in the frail hope that he, at least, believed it, she said the exact same thing again. (16.283)

Like an action hero escaping quicksand, Grace runs away to the lake house as her entire life starts caving in around her. She realizes that protecting Henry is now her only motivation to survive, but it's strong enough to keep her moving forward.

"But as someone who works with patients who are grappling with horrendously powerful addictions, let me tell you that giving them kindness alone is like giving them an overcooked noodle and sending them off to slay a dragon." (19.348)

Vita thinks Grace may have been on to something with her blunt relationship advice after all. While platitudes might make somebody feel all warm and cozy, sometimes a cold, hard reality check is just what the doctor ordered.

"The only thing you can do when a person like my brother comes into your life is just get out of the way" (21.382).

Jonathan's brother, Mitchell, is quoting his wife here, so first we must acknowledge that Mitchell is not a basement-dwelling freeloader as Grace always believed; he's an elementary school principal and has a wife who seems very intelligent. On that note, both Mitchell and Grace are members of the "We Didn't Get Out of the Way" club—no T-shirts, just emotional scars reminding them to make better choices next time.

"There was not a single moment that you and Henry were not my first priority. I hope you can believe that." (23.419)

In Jonathan's letter to Grace, he really tries to paint himself as a misunderstood guy who made some mistakes but won't give up on his beloved—which is all well and good unless your mistakes are lying about your childhood, stealing money from your beloved's father, losing your job and telling her, and literally killing your mistress. Thankfully, Grace has survived without Jonathan long enough to recognize this letter for exactly what it is: a load of horse doo-doo.

"I reached a point where I couldn't stand to see so many decent, well-intentioned women suffering through months or years of therapy, ripping their guts out and spending a fortune, just to realize that their partner has not changed at all, possibly has never seriously tried to change, or even expressed a willingness to change. The women are right back where they started when they first came in and sat where you're sitting right now. These women deserve to hear the truth, which is that their situation isn't going to improve—at least, not nearly as much as they want it to. They need to hear that the error they've made might be irreparable." (1.13)

Grace's editor calls this statement the "bombshell" in her book. It's the "tough love" advice that's going to get everyone talking. Of course, it's not very optimistic, and in a way, Grace's own story both confirms and contradicts her original view. While ignoring the warning signs in her own marriage to Jonathan did lead to its spectacular, catastrophic, irreparable collapse, Grace's individual situation does improve.

I should be reaching out more to Sylvia, she heard herself think, as if she were the lady of the manor. Perhaps what she meant was that she ought to have reached out more to Malaga, but then again, maybe it was safe to feel that way now. (6.110)

In Grace's mind, she'd hypothetically be doing Sylvia or Malaga an imaginary favor by checking in with them. In reality, reaching out to either of those women could have saved her some heartache since they both knew more about Jonathan's true colors than she did. When she does start reaching out to people in the book's final chapters—Vita, Dr. Sharp, Jonathan's family, Leo, etc.—it's just the lifeline she needs to finally break free from his influence.

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)

Here's Jonathan's guiding philosophy all wrapped up like an Eskimo in a parka: Do whatever it takes to survive, with no regard for the people you hurt along the way.

But Grace said nothing, because her mouth was full of wind, because nothing was left to hold her up and she had fallen, was falling, was going to fall forever. (12.213)

During the police interrogation, Grace imagines herself on a rope bridge, with each rope that's keeping her stable quickly snapping away. When Detective Mendoza is about to tell her the name of the patient with whom Jonathan had an affair, she doesn't even want him to say it because not knowing that fact is the only thing keeping her in the air right now. Naturally, Mendoza understands her emotional turmoil and agrees to wait until she's in a better mental place. Perhaps he'll book an afternoon at the spa for her before their next chat.

Eh...jk. He tells her that her husband's mistress was Malaga Alves.

"He asked me if I still liked it and I said I wasn't sure. He said life was too short to spend time on something I didn't like. He said my main responsibility was to myself, and lots of people go through their whole lives without knowing that." (3.66)

Kids sure say the darnedest things. Of course, had Grace actually listened to what Henry told her, she might not have been so shaken when Jonathan disappeared. Instead, she decided to assume that her intelligent preteen son misunderstood a conversation he recounted in full detail. 

Today...tonight...all she could feel was the sweet numbing cold of December and the dream of hypothermia...The Jack London story her husband loved, about the man and the dog and the elusive fire on an arctic night—that had ended in hypothermia. If she stopped right here, on the pavement, she might end in hypothermia too. (13.214)

Sooo...it's safe to say things aren't going so well for our friend Gracie at the moment. She's at her lowest point here, and we don't think it's any coincidence that Korelitz reuses the phrase "sweet numbing cold" when she references To Build a Fire again few chapters later (19.348). Basically, Grace has a choice in this moment: Does she give up and succumb to the cold like the man in that story, or does she fight to survive?

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...