The Undoing: Previously Published as You Should Have Known

The Most Talked About TV Series of 2020, Now on HBO


By Jean Hanff Korelitz

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Read the "rollickingly good literary thriller" and New York Times Bestseller — and watch the most talked about TV series of 2020, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.
Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: she lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended.

Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.


Part I


Chapter One

You Just Know

Usually people cried when they came here for the first time, and this girl looked as if she’d be no exception. She walked in with a briefcase and a swagger and shook Grace’s hand like the cool professional she clearly was, or at least wished to be. Then she sat on the couch and crossed one long twill-encased leg over the other. And then, sort of abruptly, she seemed to register where she was, with a wallop.

“Oh wow,” said the girl, whose name—Grace had double-checked a few minutes earlier—was Rebecca Wynne. “I haven’t been in a therapist’s office since college.”

Grace sat in her customary chair, crossed her own much shorter legs, and leaned forward. She couldn’t help it.

“It’s so bizarre! The minute you come in here, you just want to start bawling.”

“Plenty of Kleenex.” Grace smiled. How many times had she sat in this chair, with her legs crossed just the way they were now, listening to the room fill up with weeping. Weeping happened here so often, she sometimes imagined her office underwater, as in one of the magical Betty MacDonald stories she’d loved as a child, where the crybaby protagonist literally couldn’t stop sobbing until the water had risen to her chin. When there was extreme anger, the shouting kind or the silent, venomous kind, she envisioned the walls of her office (in actuality painted a very innocuous off-white) turning dark with rage. When there was happiness or accord, she sometimes imagined she could smell sweet pine, as from late summer at the lake.

“Well, it’s just a room,” she said cheerily. “With boring furniture.”

“Right.” Rebecca looked around, as if this needed confirmation. The room—Grace’s consulting room—had been constructed with immense care to be many things at once: comfortable but not particularly inviting, warm without troubling individuality, decorated with things so familiar they commonly resonated: that Eliot Porter print of the birches she had up beside the door—hadn’t everyone lived with that poster at some point? dorm room? summer rental?—the red kilim rug, the oatmeal-colored couch, and her own swiveling leather chair. There was a glass-topped coffee table with a single box of Kleenex in a leather holder and an old country pine desk in the corner, its drawers stocked with yellow legal pads and lists of psychopharmacologists, child psychologists, smoking-cessation hypnotherapists, real estate agents, travel agents, mediators, estate planners, divorce attorneys. On the desktop, pens protruded from an unlovely ceramic mug her son, Henry, had made in first grade (this was an item that had, over the years, elicited an astonishing number of comments, ushered into speech a remarkable number of impacted memories), and a white ceramic lamp with a burlap shade threw discreet light on the proceedings. The only window overlooked the back alley of the building, and there was never anything out there to see, despite one attempt years earlier to install a planter of some bright no-brainer flora—geraniums, actually, and ivy. The superintendent had signed off on this project, though his enthusiasm stopped well short of helping her maneuver the wooden planter off its truck and down the alley to its resting spot, but the plants had starved for light and the planter itself disappeared soon after, leaving a dark mark on the cement that persisted. She was not a flower person, really.

Today, though, she had actually brought in flowers: dark pink roses, on the specific recommendation of Sarabeth, who—as the Great Day drew ever nearer—was becoming more and more inclined to micromanage. Not only must Grace purchase flowers for this occasion, but they must be roses, and the roses must be pink—dark pink.

Dark pink roses. Why? Grace had wondered. Sarabeth wasn’t expecting a color photograph, was she? Was it not sufficiently incredible that Vogue magazine had a black-and-white picture’s worth of interest in her? But she’d done as she was told, plunking them in the only vase she had in the office’s little galley kitchen, from a forgotten flower delivery (end-of-treatment flowers? thank-you-for-showing-me-I-had-to-leave-him flowers? Jonathan flowers?), awkwardly and not very prettily spreading them out. Now they sat on one of the end tables, in some danger of being overturned by Rebecca’s heavy wool coat.

“You know,” Grace said, “you’re right about the crying. Usually it takes a lot out of people just to get here. Or in the case of my practice, to get their partner here. It’s very common to see people just let go when they finally make it through the door for the first time. It’s perfectly all right.”

“Well, another time, perhaps,” the girl said. She was thirty, Grace thought, give or take, and pretty, if a bit severe, and the clothes she wore had been rather cleverly designed to conceal her actual body type, which was plainly curvaceous and buxom, and present in its place the fiction that she was boyish and lean. The white cotton shirt looked as if it had been tailored expressly for this purpose, and the brown twill pants hit at exactly the right spot to suggest a waist that was barely there. Both pieces were triumphs of illusion and had clearly been made by someone who knew exactly what they were doing—but when one worked for Vogue, Grace imagined, one had access to such people.

Rebecca rummaged around in the briefcase at her booted feet, then extracted an ancient tape recorder, which she placed on the glass-topped table. “Do you mind?” she asked. “I know, it’s like an antique, but I need it as a backup. I once spent four hours with a certain pop star not known for her ability to speak in complete sentences, and I had this little space-age gadget the size of a matchbook. When I tried to play it back later there was absolutely nothing there. Most terrifying moment of my career.”

“It must have been.” Grace nodded. “Obviously, you managed to handle the setback.”

Rebecca shrugged. Her fine blond hair was cut in a sort of highly constructed mess, and she wore a silver necklace that lay along her clavicles. “I made her sound so smart she’d have been crazy not to confirm the quotes when they fact-checked. Not that I wasn’t worried. But her publicist actually told my editor it was her favorite interview she’d ever done, so I came out smelling like a rose.” She stopped. She looked squarely at Grace. “You know,” she said with a half-smile, “it occurs to me that I should not have said that. Another effect of being in a therapist’s office. You sit on the couch, you spill the beans.”

Grace smiled.

Rebecca, with an audible click, depressed the pertinent buttons on her tape recorder. Then she reached back into her briefcase and extracted an old-fashioned steno pad and a shiny bound galley.

“Oh, you have the book!” said Grace. It was still so new, it amazed her to see it in anyone else’s possession. As if the entire endeavor had been to produce a vanity item for herself alone.

“Of course,” said the girl coolly. Her professionalism, her control of the meeting, seemed to have been restored to her in the same instant Grace had shown herself to be such a neophyte. But she couldn’t help it. It was still so strange to see the book in its actual book-flesh: her book, her own book, not quite in the world but very near now, due with the new year—the best time, Sarabeth the agent and Maud the editor and J. Colton the publicist (J. Colton! that was really her name!) had insisted, to publish a book like this. Even after the months of revision, the actual bound galley (so physical, so solidly reassuring), the contract, the check (deposited immediately, as if it might evaporate), the catalog listing—all very realistic, all very This is actually happening to me. She had given a presentation at the publisher’s sales conference last spring, to a gallery of note-taking, road-weary reps, all grinning at her (a few sidling up afterward to ask advice for their own suffering marriages—well, she’d better get used to that, she supposed). Even after the wild day a year earlier when Sarabeth phoned in every hour to report increasingly incredible tidings. Someone wanted it. Someone else wanted it. Someone…no, two others, no, three, and then chattering away in a dialect Grace could not comprehend: a preempt, a floor (a floor? Grace wondered), audio and digital, sweeteners for “the List” (she did not discover what “the List” was until she actually read the contract). None of it seemed to compute. Grace had been reading for years about the death of publishing, but here was a pulsing, pushing, manic industry where she had expected a desiccated corpse: yet another outdated form of American manufacture, moldering alongside the steel mills and the gold mines. She mentioned this to Sarabeth once, when the auction in its third day was upended by a late entry, setting off a rash of new bids. Wasn’t publishing supposed to be dead? That’s what the magazines kept saying, after all. Sarabeth had laughed. Publishing was indeed fairly dead, she assured Grace, sounding very upbeat about this news. Except when you happened to snag the Zeitgeist. Her book, You Should Have Known, was apparently about to snag the Zeitgeist.

It had taken her two solid years to write it, sitting there at that desk in the corner, with her laptop open, between clients, and at the table in their bedroom at the lake, heavy oak, water stained, with its view of the dock, and the kitchen counter at home on 81st Street, at night, with Jonathan still at the hospital or gone to bed, exhausted from his day, and Henry asleep with some book unfurled over his chest and the light still on. She had written it with a mug of ginger tea dangerously close to the keyboard and her notes set out along the countertop all the way down to the sink at the other end, the old case files feathered with Post-it notes. As she wrote, her long-held theories became flesh, then more refined flesh, then downright authoritative-sounding flesh, the folksy wisdom she hadn’t known she possessed until she read it on the page, the conclusions she seemed to have reached before she even began her practice fifteen years earlier. (Because she had learned nothing? Because she had been right in the first place?) In fact, she couldn’t recall ever having learned how to do the work she did as a therapist, despite, naturally, having gone through the classwork and fieldwork, done her reading and written her papers, and collected the necessary degree. She had always known how to do this; she couldn’t remember not knowing it. She might have walked out of high school straight into this small, tidy office and been as effective a professional as she was today, helped as many couples, prevented as many women from marrying men who would never make them happy. She knew that this did not make her special, or even clever. She viewed her ability not as God-given (God had never been anything to her but a subject of historical, cultural, or artistic interest), but as synthesized from nature and nurture, something along the lines of a naturally gifted ballerina lucky enough to have long legs and a parent willing to ferry her to dance classes. For whatever reason—or, more probably, for no reason at all—Grace Reinhart Sachs had been born with a predisposition for social observation and insight and reared in an atmosphere of ideas and conversation. She couldn’t sing or dance or fold numbers together and pull them apart. She couldn’t play music, like her son, or make dying children live, like her husband—both skills she would have been thrilled and humbled to possess—but she could sit down with people and see, usually very quickly, usually with unnerving clarity, what snares they were setting for themselves and how not to fall into them. Or, if they were already ensnared—and typically, if they were here with her, they were already ensnared—how to free themselves. That writing down these obvious things had brought Vogue magazine to her unremarkable little office was fascinating and naturally a little exciting, but it was also slightly bizarre. Why should anyone be awarded a national platform for pointing out that day followed night, or that the economy was subject to reversals, or any other readily observable thing? (Sometimes, when she thought about her book and what it would say to the women who were going to read it, she felt almost ashamed of herself, as if she were about to market some miracle cure that had long been available on the drugstore shelf.) Then again, there were things that could not be said too many times or loudly enough.

A few weeks earlier, she had sat down for a special lunch in the private dining room at Craft, with a table of clearly cynical (but professionally fascinated) bookers for media outlets. Over the sound of gently clicking silver, Grace had talked about her book and fielded boilerplate queries (one from a notably hostile man in a crimson bow tie) about why You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them was different from all other books on the subject of relationships. Clearly, Tom Colicchio’s food was the draw here. She spent a bit too much time attending to the magazine editor seated beside her (being, in other words, force-fed the woman’s own tale of expensive divorce) and found, to her great regret, that the waiter came to take her plate long before she had had her way with the lamb shank. It had felt very unauthorlike to ask for a doggie bag.

After the lunch, though, J. Colton the publicist had indeed begun to call with news of interviews and television appearances, all as a result of the luncheon. The expensively divorced editor assigned a feature in More, and the hostile man in the bow tie booked her for an AP feature (making it all so very worth it, even Grace had to admit). The Vogue article was scheduled soon after that. The ball, clearly, was rolling.

She had (at Maud the editor’s request) drafted an op-ed piece on why January was such a popular time of year to file for divorce (holiday stresses plus new year resolve) and (at J. Colton the publicist’s request) endured a bizarre session with a media coach, learning precisely how to cock her head toward a television host, ingratiate herself to a studio audience, slip the title of her book into the most incongruous of verbal constructs without—she hoped—sounding like a robotic narcissist, and make perfectly formed sound bites.

“My editor sent it a few weeks ago,” Rebecca said, placing the galley on the tabletop next to the Kleenex box. “Loved it. You know, people don’t really ever hear this: Don’t screw up at the beginning and you won’t have a lot of these problems down the line. And it’s very in-your-face. The typical book on this subject has a bit more of a kinder, gentler approach.”

Grace, aware that the interview had now actually begun, tried to summon that cock of the head and those perfectly formed sound bites. Her voice, when she spoke next, was not the voice of what she considered her real life; it was a situational voice. It was what she thought of as her therapy voice. “I understand what you’re saying. But to be frank, I think kinder-and-gentler hasn’t served us especially well. I think women are ready to hear what my book says. We don’t need to be handled gently. We’re grown-ups, and if we’ve screwed up, we should be able to take a little truth about it, and make our own decisions. I always explain to my clients that if all they want is for someone to tell them everything’s going to be all right, or everything happens for a reason, or whatever the pointless jargon of the moment is, then they don’t have to come to my office and pay me for my expertise. Or buy my book, I suppose.” She smiled. “They can buy one of the other books. Any of them. How to Love Your Marriage Back to Health. How to Fight for Your Relationship.

“Yes, but your title’s rather…confrontational, isn’t it? You Should Have Known. I mean, that’s what we always say to ourselves when we’re watching the press conference and some politician’s just tweeted a photo of his penis to the world, or got caught with a second family, and the wife’s standing there next to him looking stunned. You know, Really? This surprises you?

“I don’t doubt the wife is surprised.” Grace nodded. “The question is, should she be surprised? Could she have avoided finding herself in this position?”

“So this is the title you chose?”

“Well, yes and no,” Grace told her. “It was actually my second choice. I wanted to call it Attention Must Be Paid. But nobody got the reference. They said it was too literary.”

“Oh really? We didn’t all read Arthur Miller in high school?” Rebecca asked archly, establishing her bona fides.

“Maybe your high school,” said Grace diplomatically. In fact she had read Death of a Salesman in middle school at Rearden, the proudly intense (and, once upon a time, vaguely socialist) New York private school where her own son was now a seventh grader. “Anyway, we compromised. You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lied about everything. Or he’s just garden-variety selfish and the fact that he’s married to you and perhaps you have children together—that doesn’t seem to stop him from behaving as if he’s still a single, unencumbered teenager?”

Oh yeah,” Rebecca said. It sounded, Grace thought, a little personal. Well, that was hardly surprising. That was sort of the point.

“And when it happens we just throw up our hands: We say: Wow, you never know about people. And we never hold ourselves accountable for what we bring to the deception. We have to learn to be accountable. If we don’t, we can’t act in our own best interests. And we can’t prevent it next time.”

“Uh-oh.” Rebecca looked up. She fixed Grace with a plainly disapproving expression. “We’re not about to blame the victim, are we?”

“There is no victim,” said Grace. “Look, I’ve been in practice for fifteen years. Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her—the very first time they talk to each other, or the second date, or the first night she introduces him to her friends. But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows. She lets these early impressions, this basic awareness, get overwhelmed by something else. She persuades herself that something she has intuitively seen in a man she barely knows isn’t true at all now that she—quote unquote—has gotten to know him better. And it’s that impulse to negate our own impressions that is so astonishingly powerful. And it can have the most devastating impact on a woman’s life. And we’ll always let ourselves off the hook for it, in our own lives, even as we’re looking at some other deluded woman and thinking: How could she not have known? And I feel, just so strongly, that we need to hold ourselves to that same standard. And before we’re taken in, not after.”

“But you know”—Rebecca looked up from her pad, while her pencil, impressively, continued to write—“it’s not just men. Women lie, too, right?” She was frowning, and there was, in the middle of her forehead, a pronounced V. Clearly—happily—the magazine she wrote for had not persuaded her to inject herself with botulinum toxin.

“Right. Of course. And I do talk about this in the book. But the fact is, nine times out of ten it’s the woman sitting right there on my couch, totally distraught because, in her view, her male partner has hidden something from her. So I decided, right at the start, this book is going to be for women.”

“Okay,” the girl said, returning to her pad. “I get it.”

“I’m being didactic,” Grace said with a rueful little laugh.

“You’re being passionate.”

Right, Grace thought. She would have to remember that.

“In any case,” she said deliberately, “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. Those 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.”

She stopped herself, partly to let Rebecca catch up, partly to savor the impact of this, her “bombshell” (as Sarabeth the agent had put it in their very first meeting the previous year). It still felt just slightly seismic. In fact, Grace could remember the moment she had decided to actually write down the thing she really thought, the obvious thing made ever more blindingly obvious with each passing year of her professional life, with every dating guide (which never said it) and marriage manual (which never said it either) she had devoured in preparation for writing her book, and with every International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors conference she’d attended (where it was never uttered). This thing no one talked about, but which she suspected her colleagues understood as well as she. Should she say it in her book and call down the vitriol of her peers? Or just reiterate that ridiculous myth that any “relationship” (whatever that was) could be “saved” (whatever that meant).

“Don’t pick the wrong person,” she told Rebecca now, emboldened by the presence of Vogue in her bland little office, the artificially long and lean woman on her oatmeal-colored couch, wielding her retro steno pad and tape recorder. “Pick the wrong person and it doesn’t matter how much you want to fix your marriage. It won’t work.”

After a moment, Rebecca looked up and said, “That’s pretty blunt.”

Grace shrugged. It was blunt, she wasn’t going to argue with that. It needed to be blunt. If a woman chose the wrong person, he was always going to be the wrong person: that was all. The most capable therapist in the world wouldn’t be able to do much more than negotiate the treaty. At best, Grace thought, it was terribly sad, but at worst it was punitive—a lifetime of punitive. That was no way to have a marriage. If these couples were childless, the effort should go into separation. If there were children: mutual respect and co-parenting. And separation.

Not, of course, that she didn’t feel for them. She truly did feel for them, her own patients especially, because they had come to her for help and it was too late to offer them anything but the equivalent of garbage bags and Windex after the oil spill. But what she hated most of all was the sheer preventability of all this distress. Her patients were not unintelligent. They were educated, insightful about others. Some, even, were brilliant people. And that they should have met, on the paths of their younger lives, a potential companion who offered sure or at least likely pain, and that they should have said yes to that sure or at least likely pain, and thus received the very sure or at least likely pain that was promised…well, it baffled her. It had always baffled her, and enraged her, too. Sometimes—she couldn’t help it—she wanted to shake them all.

“Imagine,” she said to Rebecca, “that you are sitting down at a table with someone for the first time. Perhaps on a date. Perhaps at a friend’s house—wherever you might cross paths with a man you possibly find attractive. In that first moment there are things you can see about this man, and intuit about this man. They are readily observable. You can sense his openness to other people, his interest in the world, whether or not he’s intelligent—whether he makes use of his intelligence. You can tell that he’s kind or dismissive or superior or curious or generous. You can see how he treats you. You can learn from what he decides to tell you about himself: the role of family and friends in his life, the women he’s been involved with previously. You can see how he cares for himself—his own health and well-being, his financial well-being. This is all available information, and we do avail ourselves. But then…”

She waited. Rebecca was scribbling, her blond head down.


“Then comes the story. He has a story. He has many stories. And I’m not suggesting that he’s making things up or lying outright. He might be—but even if he doesn’t do that, we do it for him, because as human beings we have such a deep, ingrained need for narrative, especially if we’re going to play an important role in the narrative; you know, I’m already the heroine and here comes my hero. And even as we’re absorbing facts or forming impressions, we have this persistent impulse to set them in some sort of context. So we form a story about how he grew up, how women have treated him, how employers have treated him. How he appears before us right now becomes a part of that story. How he wants to live tomorrow becomes part of that story. Then we get to enter the story: No one has ever loved him enough until me. None of his other girlfriends have been his intellectual equal. I’m not pretty enough for him. He admires my independence. None of this is fact. It’s all some combination of what he’s told us and what we’ve told ourselves. This person has become a made-up character in a made-up story.”

“You mean, like a fictional character.”

“Yes. It’s not a good idea to marry a fictional character.”


  • "This excellent literary mystery [unfolds] with authentic detail in a rarified contemporary Manhattan. . . intriguing and beautiful."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

On Sale
Mar 18, 2014
Page Count
448 pages

Jean Hanff Korelitz

About the Author

Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of one book of poems, The Properties of Breath, and three previous novels, A Jury of Her Peers, The Sabbathday River, The Devil and Webster, and The White Rose, as well as a novel for children, Interference Powder. She has also published essays in the anthologies Modern Love and Because I Said So, and in the magazines Vogue, Real Simple, More, Newsweek, Organic Style, Travel and Leisure (Family), and others. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband (Irish poet Paul Muldoon, poetry editor at the New Yorker and Princeton poetry professor) and two children.

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