Three generations of Americans

Joanna Hershon paints a sensitive and accurate picture of the years that made up the last decades of the 20th century

A seal hangs over a building at Harvard University  (photo credit: Reuters)
A seal hangs over a building at Harvard University
(photo credit: Reuters)

A Dual Inheritance 

By Joanna Hershon Ballantine 
496 pages; $26  

Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley had family backgrounds that could not have been more different. As A Dual Inheritance details, they didn’t even have interests in common.

Ed and Hugh met at Harvard University in the early 1960s, and for the first three years, had nothing to do with one another. In the fall of their senior year, despite the lack of any common ground, they struck up an unlikely friendship.
Their friendship would have a lasting effect on both of them as the years passed, even when they did not see each other for many of them.
Hugh was one of the well-known, wealthy, New England Shipleys, a family that worshiped the holy dollar and frequented a yacht club that Jews and blacks were not allowed to join. Hugh grew up in luxury, was given anything he could ever want, and was expected to go to Harvard like his father and grandfather had, to “make something of himself.”
Ed grew up in a tenement in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in a traditional Jewish family that went to synagogue and celebrated Shabbat with lots of food and guests. His father worked hard laying pipes in the ground for a living. When Ed was 16, his beloved mother died, leaving him alone with an increasingly bitter father who stopped observing Shabbat and the holidays, and began to drown his sorrows in liquor. In Ed’s words, after his mother was gone, there was “no Shabbat, no God, no mother.”
Despite the disparity in their backgrounds, Ed and Hugh became friends.
They were both part of the early 1960s Harvard scene, at a time when the university only admitted men – almost all of whom came from backgrounds similar to that of Hugh. Ed was a scholarship student who got into Harvard on the strength of his brains alone. He was smart and ambitious, but knew he was an outsider among the sons of rich men who exuded wealth as they walked around campus. Ed was a serious student with plans to make some “real dough” after graduation.
Hugh said he didn’t care about money – he was a budding photographer who was majoring in anthropology. He was itching to travel to Africa, to photograph people and cultures totally different from his own. Of course, it was very convenient that Hugh didn’t really have to work when he graduated. His father, who disapproved of his interests and could not understand his dreams, nevertheless would provide him with the money to pursue them.
In A Dual Inheritance, Joanna Hershon tells a story that spans the years between the early 1960s through the turn of the 21st century. The novel introduces the reader to three generations of Americans: Ed and Hugh’s parents; Ed and Hugh and the strong, vibrant women in their lives; and their respective daughters, Rebecca and Vivi, who meet in an exclusive boarding school in the late ’80s and become friends, inevitably bringing their fathers together after years of estrangement.
Hershon paints a sensitive and accurate picture of the years that made up the last decades of the 20th century, and the economic and cultural changes in the US as Hugh and Ed graduated Harvard and made their way into the world.
The novel follows Hugh to locations across the globe as he pursues his vision of building medical clinics for poor, indigent societies in other continents. His daughter, Vivi, grows up in Africa and Haiti, before returning to the States for boarding school and college. Ed pursues his dream of making money on Wall Street, and the two continue to imagine each other’s voices even when they hadn’t met in years. Despite their great differences – not only in their backgrounds, but in their interests and goals – they really have much more in common than they realize. They both want to change their lives, to rise above the circumstances they were born into. They both have troubled relationships with their fathers, who do not understand them and their goals.
They both look for women who will share their lives, support them and stay devoted to them, and they both love and care for their daughters, who go through their own growing pains and try to understand their fathers and the connection between them.
Hershon is a talented writer and A Dual Inheritance is a captivating and thought-provoking novel. It is a book that presents the people and cultures that make up American society from a perspective that will make you think again about the meaning of family legacy and expectations, and the effects of societal change on all of our lives.