Book Review: The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz


I listened to the Audible edition of this book, which was narrated by Kirby Heyborne. This review contains spoilers.

The Plot is a mystery/suspense novel about writing and novels that explores some provocative questions about originality and plagiarism.

Jacob Finch Bonner (he took his middle name from To Kill A Mockingbird) is a struggling writer whose career has fizzled out after early success with his first novel. He’s now barely getting by teaching online and at an obscure low residency writing program in New England.

While unenthusiastically teaching his seminar, Jacob meets an arrogant student named Evan Parker, who reveals that he’s discovered the “perfect plot,” guaranteed to bring the author fame and acclaim. While he only shares a few pages of the actual novel with Jacob, he reveals the essence of the plot.

What is “The Plot?” Spoilers Ahead

Long after the seminar, Jacob learns that Evan Parker has died. So he decides to write it himself, figuring that otherwise this brilliant story will never be published (while also wanting to reignite his career, naturally). The book then alternates between describing Jacob’s new status as a bestselling writer and chapters from his novel.

It turns out that Evan Parker did not conceive of this singular plot on his own. He’s actually basing it on actual events involving his own family. His sister became pregnant while still in high school and was compelled by their religious parents to have the child. The bizarre twist is that she murders her own daughter and then steals her identity.

Soon after the book is published and Jake becomes an overnight sensation, he starts getting anonymous emails that promise to expose him as a fraud. The rest of the novel is focused on Jake’s attempt to find out who is doing this and how he can stop them.

I found it slightly hard to keep track of the characters, which can be more challenging in an audiobook than in print, where you can easily refer to previous pages. What makes it especially complicated is that we’re dealing with three sets of names for the mother and daughter: the names invented by Evan Parker, the new characters created (or “stolen”) by Bonner and then the “real” characters upon whom the fictional ones are based. I’ll stick to simply calling them the mother and daughter.

The Myth of a Perfect Plot

The Plot deals with a debatable premise -that there is such a thing as a “can’t fail” plot, an idea so brilliant that it guarantees the success of a book. I think we have to just suspend disbelief about this and assume that the plot within The Plot fulfills this requirement.

On the one hand, the success of The Plot itself can be seen as evidence of a can’t-miss plot. On the other hand, Korelitz felt the need to create a whole meta narrative to support the story. On its own, the plot within The Plot would have been interesting but decidedly less compelling.

What Does The Plot Say About Writing, Creativity, and Plagiarism?

For approximately the first half of The Plot, I suspected the author didn’t understand the legal definition of plagiarism. Simply using an idea that another person never wrote down doesn’t constitute plagiarism. Fortunately, the author does understand this, which is made clear later on when Jake’s agent and an attorney have a meeting and point out that whoever is harassing Jake doesn’t have a solid legal case. As it turns out, Jake’s tormentor is not a typical author who feels his idea has been stolen. It’s much more intricate.

Since there is no literal plagiarism, the real question becomes whether or not it’s ethical for artists to take their material from an actual person’s life. This is a moral and philosophical question rather than a legal one. These considerations raise The Plot above merely another thriller and provide some topical food for thought.

How Plausible is The Plot?

Of course, fiction doesn’t have to be completely realistic. Still, unless you’re dealing with supernatural, fantasy, or sci-fi type stories, plausibility is something readers tend to consider.

The family melodrama of the pregnant girl and her family seemed a little dated to me. The timeline puts it somewhere post 2000, when teen pregnancy was not quite the shocking scandal that it was in the 1950s and earlier. It almost seemed reminiscent of much older novels where a pregnant girl was disgraced or “sent away.” I get that a religious family in a rural area would be against abortion and might even believe the girl deserves to be punished for her “sin.” However, she is presented as intelligent and independent, so the complete control her parents have over her seems a bit excessive.

Even if she had been compelled to have and keep the baby, plenty of single mothers in the 21st century finish high school (or get a GED) and go to college, perhaps starting out in community college. The notion that her life was permanently ruined by this baby seems a bit farfetched circa 2010, though this is necessary to keep the “plot” going.

Is the Mother a Villain or an Anti-hero?

Whether the mother is a villain or an anti-hero remains ambiguous and open to interpretation. Korelitz twists the story in unlikely ways to make the mother’s actions at least possibly reasonable. She’s afflicted with unsympathetic, possibly sadistic parents. Her brother is a complete jerk who the parents favor. Since no one supports her at school (e.g. teachers, guidance counselors), she never graduates.

An older man gets her pregnant with deceptive tactics (why didn’t she coerce support out of him as he was a family man with a local business?). Even her own daughter is completely lacking in normal affection. Some of these conditions are possible; all of them are a stretch. But she needs to be so overburdened to make her actions believable and, depending on your perspective, possibly even sympathetic.

The Final Twist

I won’t reveal the final twist, which I didn’t suspect till fairly late in the novel. I’m often not a big fan of twists in mysteries, as they often seem contrived and inserted simply to surprise the reader. I think Korelitz managed The Plot’s multiple twists rather well. The final and biggest twist may be farfetched from a strictly “how likely is this to actually happen?” perspective, but then few mysteries or thrillers can pass that kind of criteria. The twists in The Plot unfolded in a relatively logical and satisfying way.

The Plot is suspenseful and thought provoking. A bonus is that it raises, without definitively answering, questions about creativity, originality, and whether people have the right to manage the narrative of their own lives.

The Plot on Amazon