Friday, September 2, 2011

How The Other Half Lives

A wedding is a great way to start a novel. It allows the author to throw together a lot of characters, establish their relationship to each other, and put them under stress. Jonathan Dee's The Privileges has a terrific first chapter that drops us into the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey. Just out of college, poised on the lip of adulthood, undaunted by a heat wave, the couple launch themselves fearlessly into marriage as the chapter ends.

By the next chapter they are settled in Manhattan with two young children. After a disappointing start at a large Wall Street firm, Adam has joined a small private equity company where he is very successful. But the couple live a strangely isolated life. The children barely know their grandparents, and the Moreys' youth, attractiveness and success make other parents at the children's exclusive school resent them. They seem to feel that they exist on some higher moral plain, so when Adam sees a way to increase his wealth by illegal means, he acts not so much out of greed as out of a sense that it proves his superiority to those who blindly follow the rules. Cynthia discovers that there is very little in life that money can't buy, and she happily passes this wisdom along to her children.

If this were the New York of an Edith Wharton novel Cynthia and Adam would be punished for their transgressions. Instead Dee gives us an inside look at life of the very rich and amoral. If he didn't write so elegantly I might have turned away in disgust, but instead I marveled at his ability to make a family dysfunctional and sympathetic at the same time.

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