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The Plot

By Jean Hanff Korelitz



Book review and synopsis for The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, A thriller-esque book-within-a-book about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

Synopsis

In The Plot, Jake Bonner is a failed writer who teaches at a third-rate MFA program. One day, one of his students, Evan, tells him about a book he's working on with a great plot. Later, Jake learns that Evan died without writing his book.

Years later, Jake ends up becoming a bestselling author based on the plot of that book. However, he starts receiving anonymous messages from someone who knows he his book's plot.

In this thriller and book-within-a-book, Jake must uncover the truth behind the plot of his own book.

(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)

Detailed Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chater Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chater Summary of The Plot
Quick Plot Summary

The one-paragraph version: Jake writes a bestselling book based on a plot told to him by his MFA student, Evan Parker, who ends up dying soon after. When Jake starts getting anonymous messages calling him a "thief", he begins to investigate and learns that the story was true and based on Evan's family. In the story, a mother (Evan's sister) and daughter (Evan's niece) dislike each other. The mother ends up killing the daughter and taking her place. Jake figures out that the anonymous messages are likely from Evan's sister who murdered her own daughter (plus her parents and Evan). He goes home to tell his wife, but it turns out his wife is Evan's sister, who married him on purpose to take back her story. She murders Jake and inherits his books and estate.

In Part I, the book introduces Jacob "Jake" Finch Bonner, a once-promising writer who now teaches for a third-rate MFA program. As the school year begins, a new student, Evan Peters, comes into his class arrogantly and obnoxiously claiming that he has a work in progress with an amazing plot that's sure to become a great novel. Jake is skeptical when he reads an excerpt -- which describes a daughter and her mother living in an old house. But when Evan describes the plot, Jake realizes that this book will be everything Evan claims it will be.

Part II jumps forward two and a half years. Jake is now working three jobs after the MFA program he teaches at went online-only and reduced his salary. One day, Jake looks online to see what happened with Evan's book and learns that Evan died soon after their workshop class ended, meaning Evan likely never had time to complete his novel.

In Part III, Jake has now published Crib, a major bestseller soon to be adapted into a movie by Steven Spielberg, written based off of Evan's plot. He meets and marries a woman named Anna. However, Jake starts getting anonymous messages from someone going by "Talented Tom" calling him a "thief" and saying they know what Jake stole the novel. The situation escalates until his publisher's legal team has to get involved.

Meanwhile, excerpts from Crib are interspersed throughout the chapters, revealing more of its story. It jumps back in time to a young Samantha (the mother character) getting pregnant by her mother's boss at 15. She's forced by her religious parents to keep the baby. At 16, she has the child, Maria (the daughter character).

When the Talented Tom rumors start to gain traction in the media, Jake realizes it needs to be dealt with. He goes to the town in Vermont where Evan is from to research about his family. Jake learns that Evan's parents and sister are dead, but the sister (Dianna) had a child (Rose) who is alive. Jake believes Talented Tom is likely that surviving child.

As the excerpts from Crib continue, Maria grows up and Samantha's parents die of natural causes. Maria has to fend for herself for most of her childhood. She ends up smart and eager to leave town like her mother. However, their relationship is distant and full of mutual resentment. When Samantha learns from Maria's teacher that Maria is graduating early and attending college on scholarship, Samantha is upset that Maria didn't bother to tell her.

In Vermont, when Jake sees Evan's house, he realizes that Evan's story is not fictional at all, but rather the true story of his sister and niece. When Anna gets a letter from Tom about the accusations, Jake reluctantly tells her the truth about the situation.

Meanwhile in the story, the night Maria is about to leave, she finally tells Samantha about her departure only because she wants to borrow the car. Samantha is angry and the two get into an argument, with Maria bitterly deriding the notion that Samantha ever cared about her. Without thinking, Samantha grabs her, resulting in Maria's head slamming into a bedpost. Samantha then packs up Maria's things and buries her outside a remote cabin in another state.

In Part IV, Jake heads to Athens, Georgia where he'd heard Rose had last been. He confirms with the school registrar's office that she was a student at UGA for one year. The cleaning lady where Rose had lived says her mother had died in a fire on camping grounds nearby. A newspaper article confirms this, except it describes Dianna as her sister and says that Rose was 26.

In the final excerpts from Crib, Samantha goes to college in place of Maria. One day, Maria's former girlfriend shows up, but Samantha kills her, too.

In Athens, Jake pieces together that Dianna had driven Rose to college, where they stayed on a campgrounds. Dianna killed Rose in a fire and told the locals that the victim was her (Dianna). Dianna in turn claimed to be her 26-year-old sister (because she knew she couldn't pass for 16). From there, Dianna left to take Rose's place in college.

When Jake gets home, Anna gives him soup that turns out to be spiked with drugs. As Jake gets sleepy and groggy, Anna admits that she is Dianna (as well as Talented Tom). She killed her parents out of bitterness about them forcing her to keep the baby. Then, after she killed Rose in the fire (and told everyone else it was her own death), she took over Maria's life at UGA. One day Evan comes looking Rose and sees that Dianna is alive. Instead of doing anything about it, he realizes what has happened and he goes home and starts writing this story. Dianna follows him home and kills him, too.

After telling Jake this story, Anna leaves him for dead.

In the Epilogue, Jake is now deceased. Anna tells everyone it was a suicide as a result of being harassed over false accusations regarding the Talented Tom rumors. As his widow, Anna inherits his books and the proceeds from the story she feels he stole from her.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chater Summary.

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Book Review

If you love thrillers and books about books, then The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz might be right up your alley. Korelitz previously authored You Should Have Known which was adapted into the HBO Max limited series The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman.

In The Plot, Jake is a failed writer who steals the plot of a book from his deceased student. It becomes a bestseller. From there, the book turns into a book-within-a-book as we follow both Jake’s story as well as the story being told in his bestselling novel, The Crib.

I guessed the ending pretty early on as I was reading, as it is fairly obvious. I imagine a decent chunk of people will be able to guess it in advance as well. But it actually didn’t diminish my interest in the story. I wanted to see how it would play out, and there’s enough going on and other unanswered questions that even if you guess the big twist, there’s still other stuff to keep your interest.

One big selling point of this book is the whole nested story aspect of it. In my opinion, The Plot offers a pretty solid implementation of the nested stories format. Here, it makes sense to structure it this way, it adds to the story, and it comes together neatly. All good things.

Overall, The Plot is a solid, well-plotted thriller that more than kept my interest. As for some other general observations, I thought the writing was capable and the plot seems relatively reasonable (for a thriller, anyway). Stuff basically makes sense and the characters largely act in ways that seem consistent with the ways humans act.

Some Criticms

I think the main thing some people may not like is that the book is written in a somewhat long-winded fashion, which may or may not appeal to you. Thrillers are very often written with short paragraphs and short sentences and this is not for whatever reason. I didn’t mind it for the most part, but it does make for some very lengthy — like page-long — paragraphs that I think slowed down my reading.

(I should mention that I found I preferred listening to the audiobook for this reason. Also, the top review on Goodreads describes it as a “literary” thriller for this reason, but I would disagree with that descriptor. It’s just a thriller that’s written with long paragraphs.)

The second thing worth noting is that Korelitz describes the book-with-the-book as some type of absolutely legendary and never-seen-before story that could only have become a huge bestseller, and it basically turns out to be an okay story with a solid (but not novel) plot twist.

I don’t think it necessarily detracts from the book, I’m just surprised the author chose to describe the plot this way. Mostly, it sort of invites criticism when you tell readers they’re going to read about a plot twist that is stuff of legends and a plot structure never seen before in writing — and then it turns out to be a twist that’s been used many times before and is structured in a pretty familiar format for thriller-slash-horror-type stories.

Read it or Skip it?

Even with the overlong paragraphs and fairly guess-able plot twist, I found The Plot to be an engaging and fun read. The story-within-the-story works well here, so if that’s what interests you about it, I’d encourage you to give it a shot.

In terms of who I’d recommend this to, I think this book is best for people who mostly read general fiction and occasionally throw in a mystery-thriller here and there. If you mostly read quick and snappy mystery-thrillers, the prose in The Plot may feel a little slow for you.

I also think it could be a fun good club read, if your group is looking for a thriller to toss into the mix and change things up a bit. The Plot has enough general appeal that I think a wide range of people could enjoy it.

See The Plot on Amazon.

The Plot Audiobook Review

Narrated by: Kirby Heyborne
Length: 10 hours 43 minutes

As I mentioned above, there’s a lot of long paragraphs in this book resulting in huge walls of text in this book. If you’re not up for that, you can always just listen to the audiobook instead!

I listened to about half of it on audiobook, and I thought it was perfectly listen-able. A good audiobook choice if you’re looking for one.

Hear a sample of The Plot audiobook on Libro.fm.

The Plot, Explained!

Where can I find a full plot summary of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz?

Right here! You can find a quick recap as well as a lengthier version of the summary over here.

What happens at the end of The Plot?

After stealing Evan’s story and becoming a famous writer, Jake investigates and figures out that Evan’s story is not fictional, but rather based on Evan’s family. (The Crib is about a young mother and daughter who dislike one another. When the daughter is about to leave for college, the mother kills the daughter and takes her place in college to have the opportunities she never had.)

The mother and daughter are based on Evan’s sister (Dianna) and niece (Rose). Everyone believes Dianna is dead and that Rose is alive. However, Jake investigates Dianna’s death and learns enough for him to conclude that it’s actually Rose who is dead. Dianna killed Rose and then took over her life and went to college in her place, to have the chance she never got.

Back at home, Jake tells his wife all this, but Anna drugs him and reveals that she is actually Dianna. (She is also the one who was sending Jake those anonymous accusatory messages). She married him on purpose after reading his book and recognizing that he stole her story. Dianna admits to killing her parents (via carbon monoxide poisoning) and Rose. Then, after Evan learned what had happened and started trying to turn it into a book, she killed him, too.

The book ends with Anna killing Jake and inheriting his estate and books as his widow.

What are the two stories in The Plot?

The book within a book (interior story) is told via excerpts from Jake’s book, The Crib. It’s about a girl, Samantha, who gets pregnant at 16 and is forced by her religious parents to have the baby, Maria. Samantha resents both her parents and the baby. Her parents eventually die of natural causes, but Samantha still has a distant relationship with Maria. When Maria is about to leave for college on scholarship, Samantha kills Maria and then goes to college in her place. When Maria’s ex-girlfriend comes looking for Maria, Samantha kills her, too.

The main storyline itself (exterior story) is about Jake. Jake is a failed writer that teaches at a third-rate MFA program. He has a student that’s working on a book with a great story. Years later, Jake learns that Evan died without finishing his book. Jake decides to steal that story, which becomes his book The Crib.

Flash forward a few years, and Jake is now a bestselling author thanks to The Crib. The book is soon to be adapted into a Spielberg movie, and he meets a woman, Anna, and they get married. However, Jake has started receiving anonymous messages from someone calling him a “thief” and claiming he stole the plot of his book. As a result, Jake starts investigating Evan’s life to see who might’ve known about Evan’s story.

As he investigates, Jake learns that Evan’s parents and sister (Dianna) are dead, but his sister’s kid (Rose) is alive. Eventually he figures out that Evan’s story was actually based on his family — it’s about Dianna and Rose. Jake investigates Dianna’s death and learns enough for him to conclude that it’s actually Rose who is dead. Dianna killed Rose and then took over her life and went to college in her place, to have the chance she never got.

Back at home, Jake tells his wife all this, but Anna drugs him and reveals that she is actually Dianna. (She is also the one who was sending him those anonymous messages). She married him on purpose after reading his book and recognizing that he stole her story. Dianna admits to killing her parents (via carbon monoxide poisoning) and Rose. Then, after Evan learned what had happened and started trying to turn it into a book, she killed him, too.

The book ends with Anna killing Jake and inheriting his estate and books as his widow.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Plot


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