Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)
You Know Who You Are by Ben Dolnick
Add You Know Who You Are to bookshelf
Add to Bookshelf

You Know Who You Are

Best Seller
You Know Who You Are by Ben Dolnick
Paperback $14.95
Mar 22, 2011 | ISBN 9780307390875

Buy from Other Retailers:

See All Formats (1) +
  • $14.95

    Mar 22, 2011 | ISBN 9780307390875

    Buy from Other Retailers:

  • Mar 22, 2011 | ISBN 9780307742001

    Buy from Other Retailers:

Product Details


“This lovely novel is hauntingly wise in the ways of American boyhood, capturing the intensity of middle-school friendship and early romance. . . . Stunningly moving.” —The Boston Globe

“I love nothing more than a keen, kind eye reporting on lovably flawed characters, and Ben Dolnick has given me a story and a family to adore.  Jacob Vine’s journey from childhood into manhood is bittersweet, funny, so fondly told and so very smart.  What a pleasure.” —Elinor Lipman, author of Then She Found Me

“If this were a memoir of his coming of age . . . the author would be called brave for confessing every urge, insecurity and selfish act. . . . Laying himself this bare feels like an act of penance for surviving, and makes [Jacob’s] character all the richer.” —The New York Times

“Dolnick follows his critically acclaimed debut novel, Zoology, with You Know Who You Are, the story of Jacob, an often impulsive, insecure kid outshined by his siblings. . . . The author’s spare, minimalist prose ensures that the focus on story is never overwhelmed by literary theatrics, inviting the reader to become an omniscient parent overlooking Jacob. . . . Dolnick’s sincere, snark-free observation lends credibility and provokes empathy throughout the awkward snafus of the suburban American male’s maturation.” —Time Out New York

“Dolnick’s skill lies in how adroitly he manages Jacob’s voice throughout the novel. . . . Jacob is very much human, ever-changing and always learning, and he bears some remarkable similarities to his creator with his constant writings, his geographical location, and his introspection on life. . . . If the character’s constant yearning to be told he’s loved is also a quest shared by Dolnick, though, the search should end with this book.” —The Austin Chronicle

“Ben Dolnick writes about growing up with such winning affection he makes you want to go back and do it all over again. You Know Who You Are is about the big subjects—sex and death—and Dolnick handles it all with the lightest of touches. I loved this book.” —Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony

“A solid, elegiac novel that has a touch of the requisite teenage angst, but also some refreshing dark humor.” —The Brooklyn Paper

“Ben Dolnick brilliantly portrays the moment by moment intensity of adolescence, the bewildering adventure of growing up, and the often unbridgeable distance that exists between the world of young people and the world of adults.  As the members of Dolnick’s Vine family cope with a devastating loss, they remain wholly believable and achingly lovable.  Through Jacob, the middle child, we come to understand that such a loss can take years to fully register, and that recovery is not so much a process of letting go, but of remembering and holding on to one’s true self.” —Kiara Brinkman, author of Up High in the Trees

“In Dolnick’s second novel, You Know Who You Are, he shows considerable skill in creating rich and resonant inner lives for his deeply imagined characters, without a reliance on anything other than honest reporting on the events of a fairly regular life. Eschewing the ironic mantle of his generation, he has created a captivating human portrait, and promises to be a strong force in the fight to reclaim earnestness. . . . Dolnick writes with a subtle humor and economy of prose that you will forgive the reviewer for describing as “Franzenian,” but the comparison must be made.” —The Daily Beast

Author Q&A

A Q&A with Ben Dolnick, author of You Know Who You Are

Q: Your main character, Jacob, is a middle child. Did you have any experience with this growing up?
A: I’m actually a youngest child (it’s just me and my older brother), but I knew from fairly early on that I wanted Jacob to be in the middle. This was mostly, I think, because I’d seen a kind of drifting quality in many of the middle children I knew — a need to sort of build themselves up from scratch — that I felt matched up with how I pictured him. It’s also probably because it’s always been something of a daydream of mine, as it may be for lots of younger children, to get to be someone’s older sibling for a change; I accepted a while ago that this wasn’t likely to happen for me in real life, so I thought I might as well grab the opportunity in fiction.
Q: Is it true your last novel, Zoology¸ was inspired by a summer working at the Central Park Zoo? What inspired this book, You Know Who You Are?
A: Yes, Zoology was very much born out of a summer I spent working at the Central Park Children’s Zoo. I’ve now spent so much more time writing and thinking about the zoo then I ever did working there, though, that I often have to stop and think about what actually did happen versus what I made up. But when I started that book, having an actual experience to use as a touchstone — a set of animals I could describe, a place I could visit — was very useful as I went about the nervous-making business of writing a first novel.
With You Know Who You Are, the initial spur was probably my realization, after finishing Zoology, that I still had a ton I wanted to say about growing up and that it wasn’t always going to be as vivid to me as it was then. At first I didn’t even think about whether it would become a book; I just sort of lowered my bucket and brought up load after load of broken Legos and tattered yearbooks and popsicle sticks. Once I’d gathered enough material, though, my interest became mostly structural. I knew, for instance, that I wanted to write a book in the third person, since Zoology had been in the first person and I wanted a break from that. I also knew that since Zoology takes place in a pretty narrow time-frame — just a single summer when the main character is eighteen — I wanted to figure out how to cover a broader stretch of years (this one starts when the main character is eight and finishes when he’s twenty-three). Figuring out how to do that — I eventually realized I could lay out the years of Jacob’s life like pieces of meat on a shish kebab, and then count on the reader’s growing knowledge of him to act as the skewer — was the main work of writing the book.
Q: You deal sensitively with a mother’s illness through the eyes of a child. Was it difficult to write these scenes?
A: Sometimes it was, although one of the things I love about writing is that it can transform even the most agonizing kinds of emotional pain. Even just sitting down to write a journal entry about something terrible that’s happened to you — suddenly you’re shifted, however subtly, to a position slightly outside yourself; you’re having to use the powers of observation that belong to a part of you that is separate from the part of you that life knocks around. It’s something like the pleasure of singing very sad songs — no one wants to have his heart broken, but singing about having your heart broken, now that’s something that you’ll stand on stage at the karaoke bar and relish.
Q: Your story is part coming of age story, as Jacob Vine discovers his true self. Do you think this is an experience everyone goes through, discovering who they are?
A: Hmm. I always wince a little when I hear “coming of age,” because it sounds to me, for reasons probably having more to do with my own nuttiness than anything else, like a description of a kind of soft-focus movie in which people sit around campfires or jump in swimming holes and nothing much is at stake. One of the things I really wanted to get into this book is my belief that all the bold-face dramas that characterize adult life — loss, love, envy, compromise — are there in childhood too. There are only so many keys on everyone’s mental piano, I tend to think, and if you’ve lost a best friend, then that grief will be played with many of the same notes that will sound decades later if, say, you happen to get divorced.
But in childhood, of course, the dramas are all happening for the first time. Probably everyone does go through that experience of feeling truly ecstatic for the first time, or truly devastated, and realizing: huh, I guess those feelings are in me. It’s like sounding out the dimensions of a dark room.
Q: What is your writing regimen like?
A: Probably it’s much too generous to describe it as a regimen, unfortunately. First thing each morning I take my dog to the park, and then I spend my day, with plentiful interruptions, flailing away at a jumble of pages. Sometimes this means rereading what I’ve already written, futzing with sentences, and sometimes it means writing out new stuff, knowing it may very well end up in the outtakes bin. I have a kitchen timer I keep on my desk, for when I really want to force myself to bang out some set number of hours, but really it all feels very jerry-rigged and haphazard. I often wonder, when I’m poking through the fridge for the third time in the morning, or when I’m reading an interview with Lebron James, what other writers are doing with themselves at that moment — but one of the excellent things about working at home is that I’ll never know.

Q: What do you hope readers take from your story?

A: I guess my hope is that at some point in the book — and this is an ambition not just for this book but for my whole career, really — the reader will feel some tiny bit of what I feel when I’m reading Alice Munro or Philip Roth or George Saunders or whoever. I know this is insanely optimistic, but it is one of the fantasies that keep me writing. The writers I love create a kind of spacious feeling in my head — a sort of quiet roominess, in which I can see and think much more clearly than I ordinarily do — and if I could contribute one little bit toward that cause for someone, I’d be beyond delighted.

Looking for More Great Reads?
21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read
Back to Top