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.

8 thoughts on “A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

    1. I strongly suspect you’re going to like it. I’m about a quarter way through The Other Typist and now I want to bob my hair.


  1. The recipe looks delicous! 🙂 I am making a list of adult books I want to try out “Her characters are fully developed and fully flawed.” I love those characters in books!


    1. If you’re looking for that type of book, I would wholeheartedly recommend Empire Falls by Richard Russo. It is an amazing piece of literature with great characters. This one too of course, but I prefer Empire Falls overall.


  2. This is by far the best review I’ve read of yours and I think all of them are excellent! Your detail makes me want to read every book you write about even if it’s not my favorite genre. This subject, however, is something I dwell on often. I work with very low-income clients and in my experience, usually the poverty cycle is repeated through generations. Despite the resources and opportunities, few make better lives for themselves. How people make decisions that affect their lives truly fascinates me. Two people raised similarly, faced with the same situation can go down a completely different path than the other. It was my greatest worry when my son was growing up that while I could do every. . . single . . .thing. . .right as a parent he could one day be swayed by one friend or classmate and my efforts kicked to the curb. I am proud and relieved to say this was not the case but I’ve seen this happen to parents that were present and involved in their children’s lives and it’s devastating. I must read this book!!


    1. Thank you, that is a very nice thing to say (and very lovely for me to hear)!

      This is a subject that I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about. I did not grow up under good circumstances and it was never expected that I would go to college or succeed in any way (much like Ed in the novel). In fact, it was generally discouraged that I seek higher education. It was only after I took the ACT and SAT and did phenomenally well that anyone ever noticed me in an academic sense. I grew up in a small town and people knew who my parents were and judged me by their mistakes – assuming I would make them too.

      I agree that it’s an incredibly hard cycle to break. If you start off at a disadvantage, it is that much harder to succeed and often twice as much effort. Few people encourage you, there’s little support easily available, and generally people look the other way about a lot of unsavory things that are going on. I don’t think people realize how hard it can be to think about the future when you also have to think about basic survival. And then there’s the psychological component… It becomes incredibly difficult to believe that you deserve anything good that happens to you when nothing ever has (and what has had strings attached). People can tell you otherwise, but unless you truly believe it (and how do you teach yourself something like that?), it is hard to accept. I’m in the latter half of my twenties and I still have nearly paralyzing self-doubt about so many things – everything from blogging to professional ambitions. I started this blog as a way to reflect on where I am and what I read. Certainly my genetics and my cultural influences directly influence my decision to try and be a very kind person and to never judge someone else. It also influences my commitment to literacy and public service.


  3. My apologies if my comment in any way seemed to make light of those facing difficult situations. That is my last intent. It’s few who are successful based on luck, and as you say, it’s a long, difficult road and twice the effort, if not more. Unless we walk in another’s shoes we do not know all their struggles nor their dreams. If becoming a kind person is the only thing a person achieves in their lifetime, isn’t that a success? Kindness is never wasted. It’s apparent that you’ve conquered much in your life already and the likelihood of that continuing is imminent.


    1. I didn’t take it that way at all, I liked your comment! I think with your professional background, you’ll find this novel fascinating.

      My comment was more in relation to the book. One of the characters is discouraged and judged for seeking a new life, at the same time, he has a hard time escaping his past because it is what formed him. At the end of the day, he was born to Jewish parents and he is from Dorchester (and it’s the 1960’s). He can’t change that no matter how successful he is at Harvard. Does becoming wall street executive (or a librarian) change who you are? I don’t know and I think that is what I was trying to get out. College, no college, rich, poor – I think it matters how you live you life, but living that life is much easier when it’s not rooted in fear. On a separate, but similar note: I particularly find the political divisiveness in the country frustrating.

      At any rate, it’s a good book and a thought-provoking one. It made me think a great deal about my life and what it means to be where I am as compared to where I from. Has anything changed except for my address and my bank statement? Honestly, not really. And that’s something one of the characters finds out as well.

      So read it and let me know what you think.

      And I’m not sure I’ve conquered anything except becoming a book pusher (‘you must read this’). 🙂


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