"A Dual Inheritance," by Joanna Hershon.
Ballantine Books, 466 pages, $26
Hugh Shipley and Ed Cantowitz both grew up motherless. Hugh’s mother drank herself to death while he was still a toddler, and Ed’s died of cancer when he was a teenager.
That’s about the only thing these two young men, the protagonists of Joanna Hershon’s latest novel, "A Dual Inheritance," have in common when they strike up a rather odd but intense friendship at Harvard in the early 1960s – except for a passion for the same tall, blond, beautiful woman. But we’ll get to that later.
Hugh is the scion of a wealthy American Brahmin family and Ed the son of a working-class, grouchy Jewish father. Hugh spends his summers hanging out at the yacht club (which back then didn’t admit members of Ed’s faith), while Ed spends his laboring in construction to help earn money toward his tuition.
Neither could their ambitions be less similar. Hugh is determined to help the world’s downtrodden, while Ed is bent on making a fast buck. The former, a heavy smoker and boozer, will ultimately end up running health clinics in Africa, while the latter, who prefers donuts to nicotine, becomes a successful wheeler and dealer on Wall Street.
The novel -- Hershon’s fourth, and her first since "The German Bride" (2008), about a young Jewish woman who leaves Germany for the United States in the post-Civil War era -- follows the on-and-off (more off than on) friendship of Ed and Hugh, spanning almost half a century, from their first fateful encounter on campus in the fall of their senior year through their unlikely reunion at a wedding many decades later.
In between, we touch base with them at the various high and low points of their lives – the doing and undoing of their respective marriages, the birth and coming of age of their daughters, and their professional ups and downs.
It’s a story that carries us across decades, generations and continents; a story that is bound to hook you, especially if you hold an outsider’s fascination – as does Ed – with the genteel lives of upper-crust New Englanders and their very un-Jewish ways. It also moves along at a nice pace, keeping you wondering how the love triangle introduced at the start will play itself out.
It’s a commonplace that "opposites attract," and that certainly goes to explain how the two main characters here become almost inseparable from the moment they share their first beer. Very soon thereafter the beautiful Helen, Hugh’s old flame, suddenly reappears in his life.
Like Hugh, she comes from old money, at least on her mother’s side, while her dad is a self-made Wall Street financier. Helen initially finds her beau’s new, very Jewish friend a bit off-putting, but slowly she warms up to Ed, and by the end of the year they’ve effectively become a threesome, though at this point Ed still doesn’t challenge Hugh’s renewed hold on Helen.
Shameless attraction to money
Lurking under the surface of this seemingly idyllic friendship are tensions, over not only the shared object of their affections, but also class and religious differences. Ed secretly resents Hugh for being rich enough to dedicate his life to social activism, while Hugh finds Ed’s shameless attraction to money a bit repellent. In years to come, Ed’s very strong pro-Israel views and his tendency to stick up for the Jews when they come up in their arguments will put another strain on their friendship.
But back to the early 1960s: With graduation approaching Hugh and Helen make plans to marry. In defiance of Helen’s dad they decide to go to Africa, where Hugh can pursue his interest in anthropology by working on ethnographic films. Although she comes from a privileged world Helen, like Hugh, is drawn to the underprivileged and the idea of an unconventional lifestyle.
Hugh sets sail for Africa, leaving Helen behind for a few months. While working on a film he discovers his time would be better used providing medical care to Africa’s sick and needy than hanging around waiting to capture exotic footage of local tribes.
Helen, meanwhile, visits to New York, where Ed is already working for her father. Without giving too much away, something transpires between the two that will have long-lasting repercussions.
Helen ultimately joins Hugh in Africa, leaving a rejected Ed behind to pursue his other passion: high-risk financial deals. Ed and Hugh have a falling-out of sorts, but neither of them quite understands why.
Ostensibly it was over their very different takes on Israel’s actions in the Six-Day War. In fact it had more to do with Ed’s resentment of Hugh for getting the girl (coupled with Ed's shame and guilt over what he did with her), and Hugh’s belief that Ed exploited their friendship to gain access to Helen’s father and land his first job on Wall Street.
By coincidence - too much coincidence for this reader’s taste - in the same year, on opposite sides of the world, both Hugh and Ed father daughters who end up at the same New England boarding school.
As if that weren’t stretching things enough, Rebecca and Vivi become the best of friends. Obviously, this helps create the premise for getting their dads together again.
A simple decision that seems utterly inconsequential, such as choosing to walk rather than take the bus one day, or to spend the night at a friend’s rather than go home, can change a life forever.
Such is certainly the case with Ed. Had he followed his initial inclination to hang out a bit longer at a party with the cute secretary from his office, he would not have returned to his Manhattan apartment that fateful night when he discovered Helen sitting on the steps.
And, many years later, had he given into fatigue and spent the rest of the night with Connie - the Jewish public relations "powerhouse" who shared his love for Chinese takeout - rather than go home to get a good night’s sleep before the following morning’s tennis match, he would never have been swept off his feet by Jill, the gorgeous law student with the aching feet he bumps into on a street corner and who ends up providing quite a distraction, if temporary, from Helen.
By the time Hugh and Ed reconnect, they are both about to hit 70; one has served time in prison (see if you can guess which), while the other has been recognized for his work on behalf of bettering the world (this one shouldn’t be hard to figure out). One has been intimately involved with the other’s wife, and the other has struck up a secret, special relationship with the other’s daughter. One still prefers suits and the other hippie garb.
Is rapprochement possible at this point in life? Hugh’s daughter Vivi seems to be convinced it’s not only possible but inevitable, wondering aloud as a grown woman, if "we’re all wired with something ... that tells us we must recycle people, and that after the age of, say, twenty-five, there is literally nobody new? "A Dual Inheritance" would seem to be proof of that.
And Helen? Well, let’s just say that it takes some time but eventually she learns to act on her instincts.