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A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

How do we end up who we are? Is it culture? Is it genetics? Is it both? As this site’s tagline threatens, today I will be intersecting life and literature.

“Dual Inheritance Theory (DIT), also known as gene-culture coevolution, was developed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to explain how human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution.” (DIT sharply contrasts with the theory that culture overrides biology).

I found a picture of you, oh,
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of, oh,
Now we’re back in the fight.

I do enjoy a novel that starts with a song. And only my mother will understand how absurdly ironic it is for me to begin a post about family by quoting Chrissie Hynde. Don’t blame me, blame the talented Joanna Hershon.

In Dual Inheritance Theory, culture is defined as information and behavior acquired through social learning. It did make wonder – can your childhood experiences define your view of the world? I was raised by a sea urchin diver and a bomb specialist (until I wasn’t) and I was never thought of or treated as a child. As a result, of course, I never really was a child, though I had more skiing, surfing, and concert adventures than your average four year old. My lullabies consisted of The Who, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., and Pink Floyd. There might have been a little Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra too. And you know that article ’25 Signs You Were Raised by Hippies’, I wrote that (okay, not really, but I could have). Perhaps contrarily, I became a librarian, complete with the cardigan and oxfords. Equally perplexing, my brother (named after Norse mythology no less) is studying to be a chemical engineer. So, metaphorically speaking, both apples fell very, very far from the family tree.

Genetically speaking, I am the child of Irish Catholics on one side and Greek immigrants on the other. There must be some sort of orthodox pun there, but it’s not coming to me at the moment. My genetic heritage assures you of three things. The first: I feel guilty about something at some point every single day. The second: I can teach you to construct the perfect Greek Kebab (and that I come by my obsession for good food honestly). The third: I tan very well for a person with an Irish name (despite my rather white appearance in winter).

So while I come by my dark hair, leftist leanings, and Bob Dylan adoration honestly enough, where does my love of reading come from? Or my love of cashmere and good shoes? Why do I have blue eyes and small feet (in a family of tall, brown eyed individuals)? Why do I prefer Stephen King to Nora Roberts, Chuck Palahniuk to James Patterson? Do any of these preferences define who I am? At what point do genetic and cultural influences stop and individuality start? Is there a difference? And, perhaps most importantly, does it matter? (I say yes, it does.)


Furthermore, if desired, can you escape your heritage? I think so and it is this topic that Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance explores. Ed Cantowitz is the ambitious, but poor son of a Dorchester boxer and plumber. He’s startlingly intelligent. He knows it is his ticket out of the poverty and disillusion he grew up with. However, he’s also identifiably Jewish in a time when it was not favorable to be so. He works hard and gets in to Harvard. It’s during his senior year that he meets Hugh and the two begin a lifelong connection.

Where Ed has one goal in mind, to amass a fortune, Hugh Shipley is charming, wealthy, and charismatic with hopes of being a humanitarian. He comes from a family with a valuable name and not much else, although in the 1960’s a name will get you quite far. He’s never known the constraints of being poor and Jewish and thus has no qualms about jetting off to Africa to document the tribes living in Ethiopia. The fundamental differences between the two are in sharp contrast to the friendship they form. Although the two eventually try to parts ways, their lives keep intersecting in unusual and unexpected ways.

Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is a multi-generational, multi-continental novel that follows the friendship of two very different individuals. Does their friendship define them? Do their backgrounds? Her characters are fully developed and fully flawed. With Hugh and Ed, each desperately trying to change who they seem destined to be, Hershon is able to explore how our backgrounds shape us and what we can (and cannot) overcome. The novel focuses on differences of class, heritage, love (in all its forms), and how the decisions we make can resonate throughout our entire lives. Reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides and Tom Wolfe, A Dual Inheritance is not an easy read, but this darkly compelling, character driven novel will be well worth the time you spend on it. You know who else liked it? Maggie Shipstead – and you know how I feel about her. So I advise you to curl up on the sofa and spend a weekend getting lost in the richly textured world Hershon creates. 4/5.


There are a lot of food references as Ed is always starving. But when the characters seem happiest is when Ed, Hugh, and Helen celebrate Ed’s birthday. He has lamb with mint, so I am recommending Lamb Burgers with Mint Greek Salad. If so inclined, you can enjoy your burger while listening to the Pretenders’ Back on the Chain Gang.

1/2. I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.

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