Book Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Title: The Plot
Author: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then… he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

Hailed as breathtakingly suspenseful, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is a propulsive read about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Plot is an unputdownable page-turner. I finished it within 24 hours — I just couldn’t stand waiting to see how it all turned out!

In The Plot, our focus is on Jacob Finch Bonner, a has-been writer who burst onto the literary scene years earlier with a well-reviewed first book, then flamed out on his second book and couldn’t even find a publisher for his third or fourth. He can’t bring himself to write, and supports himself through teaching at a mediocre MFA program that’s open to anyone who wants to write, no competitive admissions process required.

When the super obnoxious Evan Parker shows up for Jake’s class, Evan is dismissive and rude, and asserts that he’s just there to get the initials MFA into his credentials. He insists his plot is amazing, can’t fail, and will make what he writes a huge bestseller and get him a major movie deal. Jake can’t believe Evan’s arrogance, but when he finally coaxes the plot out of Evan, he has to reluctantly agree that Evan has something unique and possibly quite valuable. Of course, it’s insulting that Evan insists that it doesn’t take writing talent to make a great book — all that’s needed is a great plot, and he has one.

Years go by, and Jake supports himself through online teaching and an editing business. But when he hears that Evan has died, he’s curious about the plot of his book. Surely, if someone had published such a story, he would have known. After googling and poking around, Jake becomes certain that Evan never did write his book… and since the plot was never used and never truly left Jake’s mind, well, why not?

Jake’s book is everything that Evan knew his plot would lead to. Crib is a huge bestseller, an Oprah book, and is about to be optioned by Stephen Spielberg. But Jake’s success is disturbed when he receives an email calling him a thief. His anxiety leads him into a deeper look into Evan’s life, and the more he digs, the more he understands about how someone like Evan could have come up with this amazing plot in the first place.

I can’t go into more detail than that, because spoiling this book would be unforgivable! Suffice it to say that Jake’s investigation reveals plenty of weirdness and unexpected twists, and I found it fascinating.

The Plot gives us a lot to think about, both in terms of the book’s storyline and the suspenseful elements, but also in terms of the world and inner life of a writer. As one character points out, ideas can’t be copyrighted. So if someone has a story idea but never uses it, and someone else knows about the idea and does use it, is it stealing? On the surface, yes… maybe? Was it ethical for Jake to write a book based on a plot concept that, as far he knows, was never used and was never even written beyond the draft of a first chapter? If Jake took the story outline he heard from Evan and turned into a compelling novel, was that Jake’s work in reality? How much credit, if any, does he owe to Evan? The questions are fascinating to think about, and my feelings and opinions on these issues continued to change throughout the novel.

I did pretty much nail the biggest plot twist early on, but that doesn’t mean that I truly figured it all out. I may have had a good idea of the “what”, but the “why” and the “how” were surprising and really well put-together, and I loved all the little ups and downs of Jake’s search for the truth.

I will say that the very end was not what I expected, and I’m still struggling with it! Not because it doesn’t work — it absolutely does! But I will say that my sense of fairness feels upset. This is not the ending I wanted for the characters… but it totally works in a very creepy sort of way.

The Plot has lots of disturbing developments, but it’s not graphically violent. As I said, beyond the actual intrigue and action, I also appreciated the thoughts on a writer’s life, the highs and lows of success as an author, and the various questions brought up about who gets to tell whose stories and whether it’s true to say that each person has a story that’s uniquely theirs to tell.

I think one sign that The Plot is really well done is that even though I felt disappointed by some of Jake’s actions and decisions and what these say about his morality or lack thereof, I still rooted for him and cared enough about him to want him to find a way out of the increasingly perilous place he finds himself.

The Plot is one of the buzziest books this summer, and with good reason. It’s a fast, engrossing story that kept me hooked until the very end. Check it out!


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