The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is a must-read if you are a fan of John Boyn’s A Ladder to the Sky! Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive about The Plot at first – A Ladder to the Sky was my favorite read in 2020, and similar to it, The Plot is about plagiarism in the literary world, exploring the question – to whom does a story ultimately belong? Having read a ton of Gone Girl wannabes which tried to emulate its success and miserably failed, I wasn’t confident Korelitz would be able to pull this off without giving me deja-vu vibes (I admit this may not be a fair comparison, given they belong to two different genres). But seriously, how often does one come across two novels tackling similar themes, yet with equally brilliant and original stories? That alone makes me appreciate Korelitz’s writing all the more!

In The Plot, Jacob Finch Bonner is an author whose popularity has dwindled even before his writing career has had a chance to properly take off. While his first novel showed much promise, placing him among the ‘New and Noteworthy’ in New York Times Book Review, his followups were flops to the extent that his third and fourth have been rejected by even small-time, obscure publishers. When we first see Jacob, post-rejections, he is teaching writing at a third-rate MFA program where he meets Evan Parker, his most arrogant and cocksure student yet, who boasts of having the perfect plot for the novel he is planning on writing. After reading the few pages Evan has already written, Jacob is not impressed. Sure, Evan’s writing is decent. However, it is about a fraught mother-daughter relationship that has been explored many times by writers, which by itself is unlikely to generate the enthusiasm or the kind of success Evan is after. That’s when Evan tells Jacob the whole plot, which Jacob must begrudgingly admit is unlike anything he has ever read!

When years pass by without Evan’s story making waves in the literary world, it makes Jacob curious, and he finds out Evan has passed away shortly after the MFA program, possibly never completing his novel. Faced with the conundrum as to what to do with Evan’s plot, Jacob decides to take a gamble – Evan was highly secretive about his writing in class, so he assumes Evan never shared it with anyone else. As Jacob begins to write his novel using it, he justifies his theft by telling himself such a story needs to be shared, and it would be a crime to deprive the world of it!

A few years later, all of Evan’s prophecies have come true. His plot, written and published by Jacob and titled Crib, has indeed turned out to be a sure thing! Crib has topped The New York Times bestseller list for weeks, auctioned to be adopted to the big screen by Steven Spielberg. With millions of copies of Crib sold and translated into multiple languages, Jacob is at the top of the world. But his life will soon get threatened to be upended by a mysterious person who knows how he got the story!

While I had a creeping intuition as to the identity of Jacob’s torturer, the buildup until the final revelation is ingeniously done. Jacob is defenseless, hoping the plagiarism accusations will just go away. But his tormentor, set on revealing the truth, only becomes more emboldened as time goes by, plastering the accusations all over social media, and not stopping even at threats of lawsuits brought by Jacob’s publisher. A few pages here and there from the Crib included in The Plot is essential for us to understand Evan Parker and his life, which would clue us in on who knew the plot. Those pages also reveal what makes Crib, the story of Samantha, who has made a mistake when she was fifteen, a bestseller. In Crib, Samantha is a bright girl, who has skipped grades ahead in school and is expected to attend college well before her peers. But in her teens, her sexual curiosity has overtaken her. After listening to boys in her classes bragging about their sexual conquests, she had chosen to have sex with a married man with kids, assuming it would remain a discreet affair. But the man had lied to her about having had a vasectomy and he ends up getting her pregnant. Samantha, who doesn’t want the burden of a baby, wants to be rid of it, and carry on with her education as planned. But her parents, who vehemently oppose abortion, have other ideas. They force her to quit school, have a baby, raise and provide for it. Jacob has done an excellent job at capturing the strained relationship between Samantha and her daughter, Maria. When Maria’s academic excellence mirrors her own, it only deepens Samantha’s resentment, who feels Maria has stolen the life she was supposed to live. She feels that her fate was decided by her parents, and not even her teachers, who knew her ambitions, helped her in her hour of need. So it doesn’t take long for this pot to boil over…

There are many things I loved about this book. I’m a huge fan of books inside books, and here the cherry on top is that Crib has a message I truly believe – you can force a woman to bear a child all you want, but you can’t force her to love them, and the end result, for both the child and the mother, will often be an adverse one. The Publishing industry today is also portrayed in an accurate manner. The depiction of fame writers attain if their book gets picked by a popular TV book club like Oprah’s, was amusing, because The Plot, in reality, just got picked by Jimmy Fallon’s Summer Book Club. 😄

Highly recommended.

4 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Celadon Books for sending me an ARC of The Plot.

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