Synopses & Reviews
Had he described Hugh Shipley at all over the past three years, approachable would not have been a word he’d ever have used. But one warm autumn night during his senior year, Ed Cantowitz found himself grabbing Hugh Shipley’s arm in front of Lamont Library the way he might otherwise grab a Budweiser at Cronin’s. They were not friends; they’d spoken only in passing this year, and mostly after the Shakespeare seminar in which they were both enrolled, but Ed Cantowitz was not thinking of how Hugh Shipley might find him off-putting or offensive, because, as usual, Ed Cantowitz was thinking about himself.
“Keep walking,” muttered Ed, and that’s what Hugh Shipley did. He walked as if he hadn’t even noticed the interruption, didn’t so much as slow the trajectory of his cigarette from hand to mouth. Ed watched the cigarette and the dry fallen leaves on the ground—anything not to turn around and stare at the girl. “Do me a favor and keep walking and don’t turn around. Do yourself a favor and just look straight ahead.”
Shipley nodded. “Might want to take your hand off my arm,” and Ed released his grip before offering a crazed smile as an afterthought, if not an apology. He knew he had a menacing voice, not to mention truly dark stubble (he’d forgone his much-needed second shave of the day), and his husky voice and bulldog build lent him not only an unsavory but even vaguely criminal air. Ed usually alternated between being pleased by these qualities and ashamed, but at the moment he was so focused he didn’t care what Shipley thought. The two young men walked down steps and past a stand of pine trees, kicking crabapples out of their path, and Ed talked. “This girl,” he said, and Shipley nodded again. Ed didn’t sound embarrassed, because he wasn’t embarrassed. This, he believed, is what men did for one another, all kinds of men, he didn’t care who; in the face of beautiful women, men were allied soldiers, at least until proven otherwise. “I can’t stop staring at this girl, but I’m under no illusions that I don’t need strategy. You? You don’t know a thing about strategy, am I right? Because you don’t need it. I need strategy—and make no mistake about it, strategy does work—but when I held open the door for that girl just then, I knew if I let myself do something about her, it would have been the wrong thing. I needed to save myself from myself, as they say. Listen, can you tell me if she’s still there behind us? Petite girl, big eyes—she’s actually kind of cross-eyed—really really really nice knockers?”
Hugh Shipley looked slyly right behind them. He reported that he no longer saw the girl. “Hadn’t noticed she was cross-eyed.”
“Slightly,” said Ed, stopping suddenly, short of breath. “Only if you look closely.”
“Well,” said Hugh, “glad to help.” He sounded sincere, but Ed knew he might have missed the sarcastic edge. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Ed was not a nerd—no, sir—but at this point in his college career, he had to acknowledge that he was—to put it kindly—an outsider. Being at ease around groups of other people—especially lighthearted other people—was not his strong suit.
He’d barely spoken to Shipley in the three years they’d been classmates; they’d had no reason to speak. Ed was on scholarship and was a rigorous and nakedly ambitious student with a government concentration and a gift for statistics. He was preparing to write his senior thesis on how China would dominate the twenty-first century. Hugh, on the other hand, skipped classes, often smelled like whiskey, and was rumored to be working with a lapsed graduate student on some kind of anthropology film project. He towered over Ed at roughly six foot four, and he was, of course, a Shipley, which lent everything he did a kind of simultaneous legitimacy and scandal. He’d grown up in the famous Brookline home of Clarissa Cadence Shipley—a ubiquitous stop on any Historical Homes of Boston tour. Ed had no idea how he knew this; the family was exactly that famous—one simply knew these things. One also often saw Hugh carrying a camera tripod and wearing dungarees as if he were headed off to the African savanna instead of crossing the street between classes, but—and this was the salient point—there was nothing comical about him. He looked as if he might, in fact, be more comfortable amidst a pride of lions.
“So it’s Friday,” Ed declared. “Friday night.” He tried—unsuccessfully —not to laugh, which he often did when he had excess energy, which he certainly did just then. Sometimes his laughter came from shortness of breath, sometimes it even came from anger, but Ed was—as the expression went—quick to laugh. He was quick, in fact, with everything except a joke. Jokes he hated; they were never funny.
“I’m sorry I’m laughing,” said Ed. He understood that he seemed strange, even vaguely crazy, and promised himself he would not be surprised if Hugh walked away right then.
But Hugh only nodded, as if he was waiting for Ed to stop. Then he stubbed out the cigarette on his shoe and began to strip it down. The wind carried the filter away and Ed stopped laughing.
Hugh grinned and shook his head. “Some strategy.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, after all that bluster, you’re without a date on a Friday night.” Hugh opened and closed his hands as if they’d been aching. “Maybe you should have figured out a strategy while you actually had the chance.”
“Hey,” said Ed, nodding toward Hugh’s hands, “you got circulation problems or something?”
Hugh looked at his fingers as if he’d noticed them for the first time. “I guess.”
“It’s the smoking. Something about the tobacco. I read it somewhere.”
Hugh’s fingers were long and lean, aristocratic yet manly, and they impressed Ed more than the expensive clothes, carelessly worn, that signaled a prep-school past or the athletic gait and suntanned face. It was Hugh’s hands that evoked in Ed Cantowitz a rare feeling of intimidation, but just as he was prepared to give over to the feeling, to acknowledge and make room for its uncomfortable presence, the intimidation was gone and what was left in its place surprised him: interest, plain and simple. He was rarely truly interested in other people, and, when he was, it was as if he had an intellectual obligation to follow through on it.
And something was nagging at him. He kept thinking of the Shakespeare seminar that Hugh and he were both taking, and how—maybe because Ed was alternately too willing to acknowledge that he understood little of what Shakespeare was talking about more than half the time or was overexcited about how much he did understand, and maybe because, okay, he tended to speak up more than most of his fellow students—Ed was laughed at, and often. He was used to being laughed at in class and didn’t act offended—never looking away, preferring instead to look around at all the laughing faces—but of course he was offended. And when he looked around the room, there was one face that was never laughing, and that was Hugh Shipley’s. Hugh always sat in the same aisle seat, his legs outstretched and inadvertently tripping the professor, who was fond of pacing as he taught. Hugh Shipley never laughed at Ed. And this fact was nagging at him and making it somehow essential that Hugh not walk away. He also wondered, as he always did when standing beside another man, whether—though Shipley had a good eight inches on him—he could take him in a fight.
“Ever boxed?” he asked.
Shipley shook his head. “I probably should,” he said, in a way that suggested to Ed that this answer was more of a personal aside, alluding to a different, more complicated question. He offered Ed a cigarette, which Ed declined. Hugh shrugged again and lit up, squinting as the lamplights came on. Young men were illuminated up close and in the distance; young men were in a rush toward rooms and drinks. In groups and alone, they were saddled with bags—all canvas and army green—full of books, and books and books weighing them down but not holding them back. The whole scene struck Ed Cantowitz, as it often did, as somewhere between funny—a bunch of pack mules!—and poignant, even heroic. Harvard. He’d gone to Harvard. All of these mules and Ed was one of them.
He wondered if being out on the streets on a Friday night would always bring on this unmistakable charge, as if he were about to get caught for every dishonorable act he’d ever committed, every lie he’d ever told. He also wondered if he’d ever stop picturing his home, with his mother still in it, with the Shabbos table set and the smell of burned chicken and the ironed white cloth with the ghost stains of Shabbos past, stains that— like the people who’d spilled the wine and gravy, the too-salty chicken soup—were never completely gone. All those people no longer crowded into his parents’ dining room, bearing poppy seed cakes and starting in with ritual complaints about their health and the changing neighborhood, the abandonment by their rabbi, the disintegration of their shul. They no longer clamored to compare statistics of how many Jews were left in their community or the steep increases in crime. There was no more lamenting how the schwartzes were moving in and taking over, dragging the neighborhood down. “It’s inevitable,” yelled Uncle Herb, though he tended toward yelling as a rule, making little distinction between his civic frustrations and “This chicken is very tender.”
They no longer sat around the table hollering and commiserating, drowning out his mother, who said little more than “Murray—enough,” while busying herself with serving food, and Aunt Lillian with her watery eyes, who cried, “But what about the Jewish commitment to integration?” before blowing her nose and excusing herself. Those people no longer sat there at his father’s table, but only his mother was dead; the others had merely stopped coming. They’d moved out to Mattapan and Sharon and, in one case, Newton. But even if they hadn’t moved, or even if his father had moved along with them, Murray Cantowitz had stopped observing not only Shabbos but all of the holidays, even the High Holy Days, and there was no longer any God-given reason to gather together.
Murray Cantowitz had adored his wife. Ed, even as a child, had known his father was the kind of man who had enough love for only one person in this lifetime, and his mother was that one person. When he lost his wife, Ed’s father had also lost whatever decency she had inspired. At first people said his incessant bitterness made sense; it was the grief, poor man. But after about six months they said nothing, because they stopped coming around, and Ed, age sixteen and then seventeen (what a birthday that was), was left alone with him. No Shabbos, no God, no mother. Only studying. Because he was—thankfully, although he’d never thought to be thankful about it—seriously smart and could leave this house and this town and never come back, propelled by the sheer force of his studying. He pictured his marks and his scores like the fiercest Kraut-bombing warplane—the North American P-51 Mustang—lifting him up to where he could see their building far below, until he was too far away to even tell the difference between the tenement where he had spent his youth and all the other tenements in Dorchester.
His mother had looked like an Italian film actress, with thick black hair shot through the front with a dramatic white streak. She moved slowly in the morning, regardless of how big a rush his father insisted he was in, no matter how early Ed needed to be at school. It was because of his mother that he’d attended Boston Latin, after one of his determined Irish teachers marched over to the Cantowitz home one spring afternoon and suggested—after impatiently refusing a cup of tea—that if Mr. and Mrs. Cantowitz did not pursue Boston Latin for their son, then Edward was sure to become bored and superior and make a mess of his life. His father had only scoffed, wondering aloud what Ed had done to both impress and annoy his teacher, but Mrs. Dora Cantowitz had taken Mrs. Patty Delany’s words to heart and made sure her son took the necessary steps to follow his teacher’s advice. No one would have mistaken his mother for an intellectual, but she had also been an elementary school teacher for a few years before marrying Ed’s father, and she had a fierce, if sentimental, regard for education. She had been a beloved teacher, one whose students, years later, wrote her appreciative—nearly amorous— letters. After reading a letter aloud to Ed and his father, she would place it in a blue folder, kept on the top shelf of her modest but mysterious closet. Ed was jealous of these children; how could they have known her back then? Back when she was Dora Markov being courted by Murray “the Curl” Cantowitz, welterweight?
She’d seen him buying an orange at the fruit stand and said, “Good luck with your next fight!” the way kids did at the time. “It’s gonna be a tough one” is what he supposedly replied. “Sure would be nice to see you in the crowd.” “Oh,” Dora had demurred, “my mother would never allow it.” “I’ll tell you what,” said Murray. “See this orange? I bet you I can peel this orange in a perfect circle without even nicking the skin. If I can do that, you come to my fight. Leave your mother to me.” They leaned against a liquor-store window as Murray unpeeled the orange and asked Dora for her arm. He squeezed a bit of the juice onto Dora’s outstretched wrist. “Better than any perfume,” he declared, and—as his mother used to say, quite cryptically—she was finished.
She was from truly poor Russian Jews; Cossacks had murdered her father while he was working in the fields outside Kiev, and her newly pregnant mother had somehow cobbled together enough money to get a passage to America with her sister’s family. They had all raised this American-born daughter for something better than a welterweight, no matter how promising Murray Cantowitz’s career looked at the time, and Dora had retained that idea that she was meant for better things, even after she had made her choice. She was a snob about manners and grammar and was prone to expressions like I would never stoop so low and I never cared for her. And she was superstitious. With all of her manners, she was not above throwing salt over her shoulder even while eating in a restaurant (which she generally treated with great seriousness) or spitting three times in the middle of the street if she saw a black cat or stepping on the foot of a person who’d mistakenly stepped on hers, nor would she utter the word cancer—even after it ravaged her body, even as she prayed for death itself—for fear of taunting the disease.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin
Joshua Henkin: A Dual Inheritance has been praised as a novel of ideas and as a book that explores big themes of class, privilege, and ethnicity. Yet one of the things that strike me most about the book is how deeply it is about character. Could you say something about the relationship between character and theme in this novel? Because it seems to me that a writer as good as you can’t think too much about theme without making her characters a whole lot more schematic than these characters are.
Joanna Hershon: While I certainly set out to address certain issues in this book, the themes evolved from the characters’ individual journeys, and how those journeys intersected or very often chafed against each other. I think I’m inherently a writer who pays close attention to characters’ interior worlds, and I’m fascinated by small gestures and a generally intimate scope. With that starting place, this book was particularly exciting because it did spiral out of the more familiar, domestic realm into the larger, global one. As I understood the characters on a deeper level with each successive draft, the themes you mention became more pronounced and articulated.
Henkin: Details magazine called A Dual Inheritance “the best book about male friendship written this young century.” Certainly many of the female characters (Rebecca and Vivi come to mind) are as vivid as the males, but the men do feel front and center in this book. On the other hand, you are a woman. This, of course, is the novelist ’s task: to imagine characters who are different from herself. Is writing across gender any more of a challenge (or less of a challenge) than writing across race, class, temperament, or anything else?
Hershon: I like the way you put this—the novelist ’s task is to imagine characters that are different—because it seems that readers (including me, sometimes) often expect a novel’s protagonist to be a version of the writer. And of course this expectation makes sense—all our characters come from us, they are some version (however subconscious) of ourselves—but it seems to me that we all contain multitudes of selves. For instance, the character of Ed Cantowitz: Who would have known that a short, aggressive, blue-collar-raised, financial wizard of a man (I am, as far as I know, none of these things) would be one of the most natural characters for me to inhabit? I loved writing his character, and it never felt like a stretch for me to create his point of view. I’ve always written from a male perspective as well as a female one, and this doesn’t seem particularly notable. I’ve always had close relationships with men—my father, several friends, former boyfriends, my husband, my young sons—with all of them offering up their thoughts and feelings over the years. I think writing across race and class can be trickier. I fear being presumptuous; I wish I didn’t fear this, but I do.
Henkin: A number of people have compared A Dual Inheritance to the big social novels of the nineteenth century. Were there particular novels that influenced your writing of this book, whether nineteenth-century social novels or others?
Hershon: I really was not aware of any novels influencing this one, but of course I’ve been influenced by a lifetime of reading and I do love the big sprawl of a nineteenth-century story. Favorites include Anna Karenina, The Portrait of a Lady, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.
Henkin: Significant portions of A Dual Inheritance take place before you were born and in places that, I’m guessing, you may not have spent a lot of time. Cambridge, Ethiopia, New York City, Tanzania, Haiti, Fishers Island: Did you have to do research to write about these places or are you simply very well traveled? Can you talk about the role research played in your writing of this book?
Hershon: I did a tremendous amount of research, which mostly took the form of conversation. I sought out people, asked nosy questions, and listened to their (often remarkable) stories. I ended up conducting my own crackpot anthropology project, and it was both challenging and extremely enjoyable.
Henkin: Could you talk a little about the role of coincidence in fiction generally, and in this book particularly? I’m thinking, in this instance, of the fact that Ed and Hugh, who were close friends in college, have daughters who end up in the same prep school and become close friends themselves despite not knowing of their fathers’ friendship. In lesser hands, this coincidence would seem convenient and contrived, yet I was convinced. When people say “truth is stranger than fiction,” what they’re also pointing to, whether they realize it or not, is that fiction is held to a stricter standard of truth than reality. The only standard for reality is whether it actually happened, whereas fiction has to be both plausible and convincing. Did you struggle with the coincidences in this novel?
Hershon: I understand that it might seem contrived to some readers that the daughters meet in prep school, but I feel strongly that it isn’t contrived, because it’s rooted in very real motivations that are thematically tied to the larger story. Also, in an intuitive way—at the risk of being too simplistic—it just felt right. From Hugh’s point of view, he never imagined sending any child of his to the boarding school he attended with great misery, but he chose to raise his daughter in locations with limited educational resources and, at the end of the day, where would his daughter beg him to send her? Where would it be easiest for her to gain acceptance? I’ve seen that story play out more than enough times in one way or another and I’m fascinated by how—try as Hugh might—he can never quite outrun his background; there ’s a magnetic pull. And, across the globe, where would Ed think to send his own daughter to boarding school? What school would he deem the best? Even if it irked him to think it? Coincidence is a fact of life. Sometimes, at its best, a coincidence can feel magical, even if there are perfectly good reasons for it. My personal life has always been full of ridiculous coincidences, so maybe I’m more susceptible to a bit of magical thinking than most, but if that ’s the case, so be it.
Henkin: I was particularly impressed by the dialogue in A Dual Inheritance, by how well and how deeply it characterizes. Can you talk about the writing of dialogue and its place in this novel and in your work in general?
Hershon: I imagine that my background in theater probably helps with writing dialogue. I loved doing improvisation in drama camp and acting school, and it ’s probably my favorite part of writing, though, having tried my hand at playwriting and screenwriting, I realize it ’s the shifting back and forth between a character’s words and his interior life, the ability to reveal and conceal by writing sensually alongside the dialogue— that ’s what I love most, and it ’s where I seem to thrive.
Henkin: A Dual Inheritance is a long and rich book, with many different strands. Did you map the novel out in advance and, if you didn’t, how much did you know before you started and how much did you discover as you went along? To the extent that the book was a discovery for you, what was the biggest surprise?
Hershon: I took all kinds of notes for months before writing, which did amount to an outline, but it took writing the first couple of chapters and getting a handle on the characters in order to really map out the book. It ’s honestly difficult to remember when I knew what and when because now it all feels so inevitable, but I’d say the biggest surprise was the nuanced relationship between Rebecca and Hugh. When I mapped it out, their relationship seemed to invite a will they or won’t they kind of question, but as I wrote their scenes, and as the characters and their chemistry felt utterly real to me, I realized, happily, that it was a far more nuanced situation than a simple question of exploring a taboo. And not only was it nuanced, but the subtlety of their relationship felt more complicated and heated than I’d expected.
Henkin: Another process question. Which character or section of the book came most easily to you and which character or section posed the greatest difficulty, and why?
Hershon: As I mentioned previously, the character of Ed came naturally. The end of Part One—Ed goes to East Hampton and comes home to find Helen waiting for him—was thrilling to write. Another section that came without much difficulty and with some exhilaration was the chapter in which the Shipleys take Rebecca to Anguilla. I identify with that giddy sense of being young and entering another world—realizing that there are all kinds of plausible ways to live and that there are also dark sides to most glittery situations. Conversely, the chapter set in China was a beast in terms of research. Writing about Shenzen, China, in the late 1980s felt almost like writing my last book, which was set in the American Wild West during the mid-1800s. There were few reliable sources and much was based on hearsay and scraps of articles and a heavy dose of imagination.
Henkin: Could you speak about your revision process? Kurt Vonnegut once said that writers are either swoopers or bashers. “Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.” Are you more of a basher or a swooper?
Hershon: I’m more of a basher, though sometimes—out of sheer drive and necessity—I become a swooper. For instance, I was heavily invested in figuring out what Hugh did career-wise. I was stuck on learning the minutiae of various professions in the developing world, convinced I couldn’t move on with the story until I really understood the details of several career paths so I could make informed choices for his character. Finally I realized I knew the emotional beats of what needed to happen in each relevant chapter, and so I forced myself to write “swooper style” and then return to the chapters after I’d learned more. Working this way was difficult but it was also a revelation. The chapters were rough but they worked, and they helped me understand where I truly needed to focus my attention in terms of research.
Henkin: I often think of novels as being like relationships: One is a rebound from the next. Is this true for you too? If so, how was A Dual Inheritance a response to the experience of having written your previous novel, The German Bride, and how is it leading to future projects? Which may just be another way of saying, What’s next for you?
Hershon: After my first two novels, for which I did little to no research, I wanted to write a book that would require me to learn a tremendous amount of concrete information. The urge to research, in other words, came first. What happened through that process was that I found the research somehow freeing up my writing, or at least that was the way it felt. Entering into truly unknown worlds enabled me to be more daring, and my prose gained more confidence. A Dual Inheritance was born out of wanting to write a contemporary, multi-generational, sprawling story with a larger cast of characters to play with. I followed my interests and my anxieties and they all made their way into the story. Right now, I’m not sure what’s next but I have the initial spark and it ’s decidedly contemporary. I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the research bug, but I’d like to pare down next time. We’ll see.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book; and, most recently, The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.
1. Compare the changes in Murray Cantowitz’s neighborhood and in Fishers Island throughout the four parts of the novel. Why is this difference important? How does this dichotomy relate to larger themes of the book?
2. Discuss Connie’s role in the novel. What does she symbolize for Ed? Why is she important?
3. How are Rebecca and Vivi similar to their parents? How are they different? Does their resemblance to their parents remind you of anyone in your life?
4. Photography is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How does it connect the characters? What else connects the characters throughout the generations in the story?
5. Why is the scene where Hugh cuts off his fingers so striking for Rebecca? What do you think about their relationship?
6. There are a few points throughout the novel where Ed realizes that, depending on his actions, his entire life could have evolved differently. What are these points? Do life-changing moments exist in your life?
7. On page 33, the president of the club tells Hugh “man is tribal.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
8. For years, Ed continues to love Helen despite all odds. Do you think this type of prolonged unrequited love is possible? What does it mean that Ed is able to cut Hugh out of his life, but not his love for Helen?
9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Rebecca and Vivi have found out about Ed and Helen’s relationship. Do you think that Hugh ever learns the truth?
10. How different are Hugh and Ed from the beginning to the end of the novel? How do they change, if at all?
11. If you had to write a sequel, what would happen next?
12. Of all the themes in the novel—friendship, upbringing, family, love, etc.—which resonates the most with you? Why?
13. After reading this novel, how important do you think inheritance is? What are your thoughts on dual inheritance theory? Have Ed and Hugh challenged your understanding?