Cover image of "The Plot," a thriller about a plot within a plot

Writing in the Washington Post (May 16, 2021), Maureen Corrigan says The Plot is “the best thriller of the year (so far).” And according to the book jacket, Stephen King calls it “insanely readable.” I wonder why. True, the novel is unusually well written. The plot is clever, the story well-paced and suspenseful. It’s a plot within a plot, and that’s a little different from the usual. Jean Hanff Korelitz is a pro. No doubt about it. But “the best thriller of the year (so far)” with a plot that’s “too good to give away?” Not so much.

I saw that twist coming

I saw the twist coming a mile off. Well, about halfway through the book, to put it more accurately. And up to that point, I kept wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, The Plot is a story about a plot within a plot. Yes, it’s a story about a writer. And how many writers have written books about writers? Do we need another one?

A story that’s up for grabs

Here’s the problem. The mystery in The Plot revolves around a clever murder story that an author desperate for a bestseller bases on a tale told to him by someone else. The author, Jacob Finch Bonner (“Jake”), is teaching a creative writing class, and the tale comes from one of his students in a consulting session. Then, months later, the student—a tavern owner in a small town not far away—dies of a drug overdose without ever writing his novel. And years after that, Jake figures the story is up for grabs. He writes what proves to be a runaway #1 New York Times bestseller.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2021) 317 pages ★★★★☆

Is this plagiarism?

Then someone starts trolling Jake on Twitter and Facebook, accusing him of plagiarism. The troll even writes to Jake’s publisher demanding they take the book out of print and confess the crime. But what’s the crime? Of course, it’s frowned upon to take another’s ideas and represent them at his own. And if you copy someone else’s writing—the words—that can be a crime. But, despite all the nonsense that’s floating around these days about “appropriation,” I don’t see the problem here. Jake read only a few pages of the student’s novel, and he changed all the details in what he remembered. Anyway, you can’t copyright a plot any more than you can copyright a title. He wrote every single word of his book. Every one was original.

So, does Jake just laugh it off, as he should have done, and explain to everyone who asks how the story came to him? After all, people always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” All he had to do was tell interviewers the crazy story about how the idea came to him. But no. He freaks out. And then things start going from bad to worse as the troll keeps coming, again and again. And the plot within a plot unwinds to a grim conclusion that should be a big surprise.

About the author

Image of author Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of this novel about a plot within a plot, with her husband
Jean Hanff Korelitz and Paul Muldoon at home. Image: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of eight novels and three other books as well as a portfolio of work for film, television, and the theater. She holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. Korelitz was born in New York City in 1961 and raised there. She is married to Irish poet Paul Muldoon, with whom she has two children. They live in New York City.

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