I’ve been trying to write my review of A Dual Inheritance, by Joanna Hershon, for a while. Not because I disliked the book (spoiler alert: I give it four out of five stars!), but because it spans so many characters, themes, and plots, it is hard to summarize and even harder not to spoil.
Here is the summary from Goodreads:
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1963: two students meet one autumn evening during their senior year at Harvard–Ed, a Jewish kid on scholarship, and Hugh, a Boston Brahmin with the world at his feet. Ed is unapologetically ambitious and girl-crazy, while Hugh is ambivalent about everything aside from his dedicated pining for the one girl he’s ever loved. An immediate, intense friendship is sparked that night between these two opposites, which ends just as abruptly, several years later, although only one of them understands why. A Dual Inheritance follows the lives of Ed and Hugh for next several decades, as their paths-in spite of their rift, in spite of their wildly different social classes, personalities and choices-remain strangely and compellingly connected.
I’m a sucker for collegiate settings, and though we are only at Harvard briefly, I think Hershon does a commendable job using it as a backdrop to the relationship between Ed and Hugh. College is a period where people from disparate upbringings and backgrounds interact, often for the first time, and appropriately, Ed and Hugh could not be more different. However–as again often happens in college–the two become intensely close friends, each grappling with their own similar emotional ‘inheritance’ from their parents.
This section especially reminded me of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides–and I mean that as a compliment, as I enjoyed both of these books. Both have young people trying to define themselves, their relationships, and their aspirations; A Dual Inheritance focuses more on the impacts, intentional and otherwise, that parents have on their children. It also lacks the pretentiousness that some found so distasteful in The Marriage Plot; indeed, people are consistently and realistically dealing with their weaknesses.
As the boys grow up, they drift apart thanks to some poor decision-making late one night, and from that point on, the book follows their separate journeys. While Ed does eventually come to achieve the success he has always wanted, his relationships suffer. Hugh, on the other hand, is able to lead the morally-upright life he sought, but finds himself compromising his own integrity personally and professionally.
Then we meet each man’s child, and watch as the cycle of inheritance starts all over again. What do we pass on to our children, consciously and unconsciously? How much of our personality is learned and how much is bred? These questions propel this second generation’s act forward, and it is surprisingly uncertain, even at the end of the book, what the answers are. I really liked that.
And sure, while there are a few moments that might stretch your disbelief–that Hugh’s and Ed’s children not only attend the same boarding school, but manage to become friends, for example–they are easily overlooked due to the real and raw emotion that Hershon elicits from these characters. I empathized with each character in turn, and even saw a bit of myself reflected in each one. Hugh’s desperation to do measurable good in the world; Ed’s need to rise above his humble origins; Ed’ daughter’s all-consuming drive to achieve that ends up leaving her unhappy.
This is a lovely piece of literary fiction, particularly if you are interested in the idea of children trying to find identities separate from their parents, and I highly recommend it.
I received this book free for review from Ballantine Books through Netgalley. A Dual Inheritance will be available for purchase on May 7, 2013.