Jan 7 2010

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

Sara Eckel

web exclusive


Early in Jonathan Dee's fifth novel, The Privileges, wealthy stay-at-home mom Cynthia Morey plays poker with her two young children, equipping them with sunglasses and bandanas to shield their faces from giving away their hands. When she notices one of her Manhattan neighbors—apparently confused by the sight of two children dressed like unabombers—staring into their window, Cynthia chastises the woman for her nosiness. She punctuates the outburst by saying, "Our family rules!"

This is one of many moments in The Privileges when Cynthia exhibits her extremely high esteem for herself and her clan. She and her husband, Adam, a private-equity manager, are one of those impossibly fortunate couples: Well-matched and married at a young age, with beautiful children, and, as the novel progresses, rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

With such bright, shiny exteriors, one might expect Dee, whose previous novels include Palladio (2003), to deliver a scathing expose of callow, lazy rich people. Instead, this elegant novel presents a hard-working and intelligent couple who love each other fiercely and raise their children well. These are protagonists rarely found in contemporary fiction: people who do not doubt themselves or each other, who move through the world with clear-eyed focus, scarcely taking a moment for self-reflection.

Of course, that's not an entirely good thing. The Moreys have a nearly pathological need to shed their middle-class pasts, to the point where their children barely know their grandparents. "There is nothing constructive about remembering," Adam observes at one point. Their swift, unfettered glide upward makes them arrogant and, at times, lacking in compassion for the less-successful. When Cynthia picks up her stepsister from the Bellevue Hospital mental ward, she becomes impatient when the young woman starts sobbing in her car. ("I'm sorry that unhappiness doesn't fit in with your lifestyle," her step-sister replies.) And then there is the matter of Adam's business dealings, the insider trading and off-shore banking that, he knows, could one day lead to a fierce rap on his door from SEC officials.

As the book is being released at a time of unprecedented hostility toward Wall Street types, one might expect a pointed examination of American capitalism. But socioeconomic commentary is clearly not Dee's intent. He avoids pinning individual chapters to any particular year—save for a few keywords (Facebook, IPO), time markers are almost completely absent. More important, he does not punish his characters for their failings.

Those choices ultimately make the book feel flat—more a character sketch than a novel. Dee hangs Chekhov's gun on the wall, but never fires it. While it is extremely admirable that the author chose a realistic ending over a Hollywood-style crowd-pleaser, he is unfortunately unable to solve this narrative conundrum: How do you write a story about people who, over the course of more than two decades, remain virtually unchanged? As the Moreys' two children reach adulthood, they take up some of the narrative slack, but not enough to keep it from feeling one-note.

But it's still a delightful ride. The writing is extremely graceful, particularly in the first chapter, in which Dee, capturing Cynthia and Adam's wedding, shifts points of view with astonishing seamlessness. In the end, the novel goes down like a perfectly chilled glass of champagne—crisp, sparkling and delicious, but not particularly memorable.

Sara Eckel is Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Nerve, and Time Out New York.

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