Reviews for Privileges

Booklist Reviews 2009 December #1
In his previous four novels, Dee has dramatized peculiarly American forms of absurdity and moral bankruptcy with search-and-destroy precision and calculated understatement. That approach serves him well in this ensnaring tale of alienating wealth, in which Dee breaks fresh artistic ground with the sheer beauty and quiet poignancy of his prose. Picture-perfect and ferociously confident and ambitious Adam and Cynthia marry right out of college and quickly have children, April and Jonas. Adam excels at a private equity firm in Manhattan, but, impatient for the big money, he also launches a high-stakes insider-trading venture. The gleaming Moreys become so impossibly rich they don't seem quite human to others, and, of course, money doesn't preclude suffering. Dee deftly avoids cliché as Adam and Cynthia go against type by being fiercely loyal to each other, April takes desperate risks, and Jonas, the brightest and most creative of the clan, embarks on an inquiry into outsider art that lands him in a strange and terrifying predicament. A suspenseful, melancholy, and acidly funny tale about self, family, entitlement, and life's mysteries and inevitabilities. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2010 January
Lifestyles of the rich

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” Fitzgerald wrote. “They are different from you and me.” This maxim, whether or not it is true, has been the guiding principle behind everything from Edith Wharton’s society novels to much of Aaron Spelling’s television opus, and it is also at the heart of Jonathan Dee’s new novel, The Privileges. Adam and Cynthia Morey, the self-made couple whose story Dee tells from their wedding day onward, are filthy rich beyond most of our imaginings. They live in an insular world of their own careful construction, but for all their success, lack one essential possession: a moral compass.

Adam and Cynthia are perfectly matched. Attractive, charismatic, ambitious and smart, they have gravitated to each other with a Darwinian inevitability. As the novel opens at their elaborately staged—not to say excessive—wedding in Pittsburgh, we see them already closing ranks against their dysfunctional extended families. Settled on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Moreys have their children young—a daughter, April, and son, Jonas—a fact that casts Cynthia in the reluctant role of stay-at-home mother while Adam climbs the Wall Street ladder. Discontent at Morgan Stanley, Adam takes a job at a private equity firm, an ideal fit for his talents. Soon, he is the favorite of the firm’s founding partner.

But the considerable remuneration and perks at Perini Capital—one year, he gets a $250,000 bonus—are not enough for Adam, who seizes an opportunity to indulge in insider trading on a grand scale. He grows fabulously wealthy, stashing millions in offshore accounts. The money affords Cynthia, who for all her intelligence never questions its source, the chance to move to larger and larger apartments and second homes. She indulges the children’s every whim, and by the time they are in high school Cynthia has become the “cool mom,” lording a misguided sense of righteousness over the older, more staid parents.

The Privileges is not your standard cautionary tale about the evils of ill-gotten gains. Indeed, when it looks as if Adam might get caught and the Moreys’ world might come crashing down, he and Cynthia rise from the ashes like the phoenix and set up a charitable foundation that allows them, particularly Cynthia, to bask in public adulation. Their children, now young adults, take two diverging paths. April becomes the vacuous party girl, convinced of her own superiority despite the lack of evidence to support that claim. Jonas, however, forges into new territory, studying art history at the University of Chicago and trying to distance himself from his family wealth as much as possible. Searching for “authenticity,” he is enthralled by “outsider art,” but takes his obsession too far, placing himself at grave risk.

We are told again and again in The Privileges that Cynthia and Adam have remained deliriously in love over the years and that they have created their family from whole cloth as some grand ideal. Yet, with the possible exception of Jonas, they all seem incredibly lonely, locked in their little boxes of condescension. Neither Adam nor Cynthia has any true, lasting friendships, and they long ago discarded their parents and siblings. Their lives have been about money and money alone, and these very smart and sophisticated people remain clueless about the cause of their discontent. Sadly, even the moderately socially conscious Jonas seems anxious to return to the sheltered fold when, at novel’s end, his single venture into the real world turns ugly.

Jonathan Dee’s achievement in The Privileges is the way he adeptly penetrates the mindset of these relentlessly narcissistic characters, giving us insight into what drives them in their need to acquire and dominate. It’s hard to imagine anyone liking, or even sympathizing with, Adam and Cynthia, and yet Dee’s discerning portrayal of their inner lives keeps the pages turning. As a chronicler of this world of wealth and advantage, Dee is a dispassionate observer, neither condemning nor exalting the Moreys. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness: we ought to hate these people, but somehow we do not.

Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2009 November #1
Gilded young go-getter creates, not always legally, a cocoon for his family in Dee's mostly buoyant fifth novel about money, family and mortality. Adam and Cynthia Morey, Midwestern transplants in Manhattan, have beauty, brains, charm and a formidable determination to carve out a comfortable world for themselves, though they do not come from money; Adam's father was a pipe fitter. The couple, married when they're only 22, have some simple rules. Forget the past. Seize the day. Keep in shape. Glow! Two kids, April and Jonas, arrive early; no problem. Adam has the Midas touch and the trust of his boss at his private-equity firm. Honoring complexity, Dee (Palladio, 2002, etc.) refuses to paint Adam as a total narcissist or philanderer. Unlike his peer Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, Adam has a doglike devotion to his wife, the stronger character. They dote on their kids; family means this charmed circle of four. Everyone else is an outsider. When her stepsister has a breakdown, Cynthia dumps her like somebody else's garbage. Dee tracks the Moreys over 20-plus years as they strive for a life without limits. Their sex life still sizzles; aging is forbidden; their money keeps growing, helped by Adam's involvement in insider trading, a risk he enjoys. Still, we ignore limits and connectedness at our peril, and that's Dee's theme, implied without glib moralizing. The novel's final third turns darker. Both parents are frantically busy, heavily involved in charity work; they're boldface names, with their own foundation. Then Cynthia takes a time out; her dad is dying in a Florida hospice and she feels uncharacteristically bereft. The pampered college-age kids appear trapped. April is spiraling downward; drugs, meaningless sex. Jonas, an art student and half-hearted rebel against his family's values, almost loses his life to a madman because of his lack of survival skills. Thoughtful and bracingly unpredictable, though the lack of a resolution is frustrating. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM Copyright Kirkus 2009 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 November #2

Dee's latest novel (after Palladio) is a scathing portrait of the perks and perils of a life of privilege. Cynthia and Adam Morey are a golden couple--beautiful, ambitious, untouchable. From their wedding in their early twenties, to raising two children in Manhattan, to Adam's rise in the financial world, they exude a self-absorbed confidence, and their commitment to each other shines. Yet Adam's relentless insider trading and lack of conscience are pathological. Daughter April is aimless and abuses drugs, while son Jonas eschews his trust fund and attends art school. In a twisted and bizarre sideplot, he comes running back to the safety of his privileged life after a near-death experience. Dee excels at detailing contemporary scenes, delivering pitch-perfect dialog, and crafting brutal, hard-to-forget interactions, as when Cynthia coldly buys off her dying father's girlfriend in order to spend a few last hours with the man who deserted her as a child. VERDICT Readers who appreciate complex characters with questionable morality will enjoy discussing this stylish work. [Library marketing; ebook available 1/10: ISBN 978-1-58836-920-8.]--Christine Perkins, Bellingham P.L., WA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 September #4

Dee's four prior novels (Palladio; etc.) cast an intelligent, calculating eye on the culturally topical, which sparked comparisons to the writings of Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey, a young and charming couple who quickly expand into a brood of four, begins Dee's fifth. Adam and Cynthia's nuanced personalities and playful, sincere exchanges form the novel's empathic backbone as Adam begins to profit immensely from risky side ventures while working for a hedge fund. Dee establishes a trust with his readers that allows Adam's murky business ethics to escape the spotlight of outright moral scrutiny, and by showing how Adam endangers his privilege--while his children endanger their own lives--Dee reveals how risk is a kind of numbing balm. April, Adam's daughter, responds to the boredom of material comfort by resorting to drug-induced self-effacement. The novel climaxes as the children face the possibility of their own death, though lucidity after mortal danger is fleeting: "I can feel myself forgetting what it feels like to feel," April says. Dee notably spurns flat portraits of greed, instead letting the characters' self-awareness and self-forgetfulness stand on their own to create an appealing portrait of a world won by risk. (Jan.)

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