THE PRIVILEGES by Jonathan Dee

Book Quote:

“By their last night [in London], Adam was saying to Cynthia that they ought to just buy the flat they were staying in so they could come and go as they pleased. “I had a good year,” he said. She looked at him as if he were a little mad, but then she caught something exciting in his eyes and threw up her hands and said, “Why not?” That was it: everything was open to them. What was life’s object if not that?”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (DEC 1, 2010)

Jonathan Dee’s latest, The Privileges, is a psychologically astute exploration of the toll privilege exacts on two generations – the self-made and the born-elite– of the Morey family. Cynthia and Adam Morey are easy to hate: they’re beautiful, socially adept, and madly in love – and unapologetic about it. As Adam’s brother says in his speech at their wedding (which opens the book), “They are a charmed couple. No one who knows them can doubt that they are destined to spend a long, happy, extraordinary life together.” At the worldly age of 22, the bride and groom don’t doubt it either and they traipse through their wedding day with the breeziness and ease of people certain of their impending prosperity. From here, life only gets better.

The curious thing is: neither Adam nor Cynthia were born into privilege. Adam’s working-class parents seem a bit stunned (and cowed) by their obviously meant-for-greatness son and while Cynthia’s mother remarried money, her feckless father abandoned them to financial insecurity. Rather, their sense of entitlement seems to come from their whole-hearted faith in the abilities of each other, in their unique specialness in the world. They casually shrug off their histories– to the later non-comprehension of their children – because nothing about their pasts conforms to their conception of themselves. The past is limiting, and Cynthia and Adam have “a shared talent for leaving all their baggage behind.”

But for the first few years of their marriage, Adam wonders how much of that faith was justified. Sure, he’s worked hard and enjoyed modest success at Morgan Stanley, but without his MBA (and unwilling to step off the fast track to get one with a wife and two kids to support) Adam finds himself smacking his head against a ceiling of sorts while the unworthy scrabble up the ladder around him. Unable to achieve the success he knows he deserves at Morgan Stanley, Adam leaves to join a small private equity firm, Perini Capital. Perini is small enough for Adam to forge an identity for himself and before long he’s indispensable to the CEO, Barry Sanford.

Unable to find a suitable nanny, Cynthia has long since stopped working to take care of April and Jonas. But as the kids get older, and school and extracurricular activities take over their time, Cynthia’s psychological stagnancy becomes too much for her. When she tells Adam she wants to start seeing a psychiatrist, he panics: she has always been the one to ground him. Without her stability – her faith in their wondrous future – he doubts his ability to stay on course, and while he knows her happiness is his responsibility, he doesn’t know what to do.

That is, until a chance meeting becomes an opportunity to give Cynthia the kind of life he knows she wants. Before long, Adam’s sharing privileged information with a small group of traders that he controls. Adam is little concerned with legalities of insider trading, for everything “was about a moment’s potential; and what you did with it. Unrealized potential was a tragic thing.” His choice eventually makes them billionaires.

But that is where Adam and Cynthia differ from their children; their life has a purpose, however shallow: wealth accumulation. The children, on the other hand, struggle to find meaning in an existence where nothing is denied them. Their discontent is evident in childhood. Cynthia’s enthusiasm for Jonas’ collections – coins, Duplo toys, books – completing them in one fell swoop with the swipe of a credit card, drives him to start a secret stash of found objects, a collection no one can derive the logic of and complete for him. April tries to make sense of her feelings of rootlessness by inventing a fictional family history at school.

Unfortunately, their childhood ill-prepares them for the tragedy each will come within a hair’s breadth of later in life – April as an aimless party girl; Jonas as an art history student in Chicago. But as brother and sister figure life out, the only choice they’re left to make– to accept and make the most of their privilege – can feel like a punch in the gut. Isn’t this listless, lost generation in some way meant to right the wrongs of their parents?

But that’d be too easy and what makes this book so good – besides Dee’s uncanny sense for gesture and dialogue – is precisely that he refrains from judging the Moreys. It’s too easy to judge Adam’s insider trading as unethical. Is there no merit to be had in creating wealth where there wasn’t any before? In taking risks to please the woman you love? It’s too easy to criticize Cynthia’s materialism or her ennui. It’s too easy to say: get a job; get a hobby; get off your ass and do something to better the world. That’s exactly what she wants to do, but “without some framework, some resources, even your secret aspirations just curdled into sentimental bullshit.” And so while the Moreys’ lifestyle can be lavish – chauffeured cars, a private jet, an anniversary gala at the New York Public Library –their wealth is precisely what allows them to do good in the world. And creating wealth to be redirected to those that need it via the Morey Foundation should be worth something on the karma market. Shouldn’t it?

Unless of course, their charitable deeds are motivated by an eye to legacy. Resisting the facile, Dee allows the Moreys the space to be both. As Adam explains to April, they had to try to “make the world a better place” because one “can’t just do nothing. Otherwise it’s like you were never here.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 75 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks (October 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: THE MILLIONS interview with Jonathan Dee
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: A complimentary read:

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett


December 1, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, Reading Guide

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