â€śLet me tell you about the very rich,â€ť Fitzgerald wrote. â€śThey are different from you and me.â€ť This maxim, whether or not it is true, has been the guiding principle behind everything from Edith Whartonâ€™s society novels to much of Aaron Spellingâ€™s television opus, and it is also at the heart of Jonathan Deeâ€™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 stagedâ€”not to say excessiveâ€”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 youngâ€”a daughter, April, and son, Jonasâ€”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 firmâ€™s founding partner.
But the considerable remuneration and perks at Perini Capitalâ€”one year, he gets a $250,000 bonusâ€”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 childrenâ€™s every whim, and by the time they are in high school Cynthia has become the â€ścool mom,â€ť 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 Moreysâ€™ 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 â€śauthenticity,â€ť he is enthralled by â€śoutsider art,â€ť 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 novelâ€™s end, his single venture into the real world turns ugly.
Jonathan Deeâ€™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. Itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone liking, or even sympathizing with, Adam and Cynthia, and yet Deeâ€™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 novelâ€™s strength and its weakness: we ought to hate these people, but somehow we do not.Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
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[Page 57]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.
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.)[Page 41]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.