BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Dual Inheritance’: A Big Beach Read Novel — and A Whole Lot More

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'A Dual Inheritance': A Big Beach Read Novel -- and A Whole Lot More
Memorial Day is fast approaching, so it’s fitting that I’ve settled on  my “beach read” book for 2013: Joanna Hershon’s “A Dual Inheritance” (Ballantine Books, 496 pages, $26.00).
Hershon has written the kind of novel we’ve come to expect from Kurt Andersen, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen (“Freedom’) and, of course Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates: A sweeping, multigeneraltion book that explores class, job choices, love and marriage and what happens with the next generation. The kind of book Anthony Trollope was famous for in the 19th Century. My choice for a comparable Trollope novel: his 1875 masterpiece “The Way We Live Now” with its plot of financial skullduggery and the clash of classes — both essential elements of Hershon’s novel.It’s autumn 1962 and two unlikely Harvard students meet and find common ground.  Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley meet in their final year at Harvard. Ed, from the heavily Jewish Dorchester district of Boston, is far removed from Hugh’s privileged upbringing as a Boston Brahmin, yet his drive and ambition outpace Hugh’s ambivalence about his own life.

Ed and Hugh develop an unlikely friendship, reinforced by a  shared desire to transcend their circumstances, but complicated by their rivalry for the affections of Helen Ordway, whose parents have a home on Fishers Island, part of New York state but just offshore of Connecticut in the Long Island Sound. (The parents of “Mad Men” character Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser,  have a summer home on Fishers Island).       A few years after their “cute meet” at Harvard their paths diverge — Ed rising on Wall Street thanks to his friendship and mentorship with Helen’s financier dad, and Hugh becoming a  global humanitarian with medical clinics in Tanzania. The book’s title could just as well be “A Duel Inheritance,” because of their clash over the love of Helen, who ends up marrying Hugh after a brief affair with Ed.

“A Dual Inheritance” is sprawling in its scope, spanning from the Cuban Missile Crisis which begins as Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley meet  to the 2008 stock market collapse, with locations as diverse as Dar es Salaam, Boston, Shenzhen, and Fishers Island. “A Dual Inheritance”   follows not only these two men, but the complicated women in their vastly different lives.   And nobody is more complicated than Ed’s and Jill’s daughter Rebecca, unless it’s Hugh and Helen’s daughter Vivi, who are best friends. Their friendship is the link between Ed and Hugh, however tenuous and frayed it is at various times up to the novel’s end on Fishers Island in 2010 when everybody meets to celebrate Vivi’s wedding.

Here’s what the author has to say about her novel:

I’ve always been fascinated by distinct places and periods of time in which unlikely friendships are possible. My last novel was about German settlers in the American Southwest during the mid-1800s. During the writing process, I realized that what compelled me most about this time and place was not just the historical details–so fascinating and unlike our modern existence–but what fertile ground it was for improbable relationships to blossom.

The protagonists of my new novel, A Dual Inheritance, meet in a more prosaic way–at college–than did those 19th century pioneers, but Harvard in the early 1960s had its own set of charms and challenges. Because of their wildly different backgrounds, issues of class and money beset best friends Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley, though more salient is how they both identify as outsiders. But what happens to such a bond over time? How much do their different backgrounds ultimately matter?

Their story takes the reader all over the globe (Dar es Salaam, Shenzhen, Haiti; the wilds of Wall Street) and spans two generations, encompassing a cast of characters to whom I hope you’ll grow just attached as I have. This is the story of two lives converging and—just as quickly—diverging; it’s the surprising, even shocking reverberations of one brief friendship.
It didn’t take me long to become absorbed by the characters in “A Dual Inheritance” and I think many readers looking for a big book to sink their literary teeth into will be similarly addicted. In addition to the authors mentioned above, think Nancy Thayer and Meg Wolitzer.  Enjoy, and Happy Memorial Day!
About the author

Joanna Hershon is the author of previous novels: “Swimming”, “The Outside of August” and “The German Bride.”  Her writing has appeared in (among other places) The New York Times, One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, the literary anthologies Brooklyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot, and (most recently) Berlin Stories– a multimedia journal for NPR Worldwide. She has taught in the Creative Writing department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons.
Hershon’s website:  www.joannahershon.com

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