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Friday, May 31, 2013
A good novel can function as a form of mathematics. The author attempts to work out an equation within which there are many variables. Joanna Hershon skillfully structures her new novel, “A Dual Inheritance,” in order to explore through an unlikely love triangle various changes in our national culture and identity.
The novel begins in 1962- 63, a watershed year by any measure, when the two central male characters, Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley, meet as undergraduates at Harvard. Each comes from pointedly different socio economic backgrounds. Ed grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood where his gruff father still lives despite its decline. Hugh embodies WASPish privilege. He comes from a long line of Harvard-educated men. The first several chapters of the novel shift in point of view from Ed to Hugh and back, evoking their fundamental differences and ambitions as their friendship matures.
Helen Ordway serves as the third member of the triangle. She, too, comes from WASPish privilege, although her highly successful father married into old money and a prestigious New England family name. Because he never forgot his “shaky origins,” he is adamant about wanting his daughter to marry someone of Wall Street and the Ivy League. Helen dated Hugh during their prep school years but they drifted apart. After a chance meeting, the three become inseparable while Ed and Hugh complete their Harvard education.
Hershon’s novel moves forward in time. Part two covers the years 1970- 83, part three the year 1988, and part four the years 1989-2010. Ed and Hugh have had a serious falling out for complicated reasons. Hugh, contrary to type, has moved to Africa to set up health clinics. Helen has remained with him. Ed, faithful to his ambition, has become a successful Wall Street investor.
The plot, however, remains less important than the variables in the equation the novel sets up and explores. An explanatory opening note provides an important perspective on the action and is worth quoting in full: “Dual inheritance theory (DIT), also known as gene-culture co-evolution, was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s to explain how human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution.” Here we have the equation and the variables.
Issues of race and class shape relationships and shift over time. Hershon continues her examination of character and culture, then, through the children of Ed and Hugh, moving from male to female, Rebecca Cantowitz and Genevieve Shipley. The daughters become friends, paralleling and departing from their fathers’ “genes” and cultures.
The theory of the “stranger” or outsider in culture provides an important link throughout the novel and within the psychology of the array of characters.
Two previous Hershon novels, “The Outside of August” and “The German Bride,” relate to strangers in strange lands as well. Here Ed wants to become a part of a world that has excluded him much of his life; Hugh feels not a part of the world that has provided him with inordinate opportunity.
Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-French author, provides a key perspective on this concept in her study “Strangers to Ourselves.” As she observes, the stranger is the hidden part of our own identity: “By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself.”
“A Dual Inheritance” explains character in relation to the changing identity and complexion of American society, deftly moving from the 1960s to the present day. In what ways do Ed and Hugh succeed and fail? Might Helen serve as a link of inclusion? Will their children repeat the pattern? How much of what happens relates to genetics and how much to social conditioning?
We are brought full circle in this novel, awakened to possibilities and made privy to a poignant celebration of our changing culture.
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