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'The Privileges' by Jonathan Dee

January 03, 2010|By Joanna Smith Rakoff
(Renee Nault / For The Times )

The Privileges

A Novel

Jonathan Dee

Random House: 272 pp., $25

In his previous four novels, Jonathan Dee has largely concerned himself with characters on the fringes of America's moneyed classes: the private school teacher who tutors his pampered students on the Haymarket Riots and Jacob Riis; the earnest novelist, shocked by his new editor's luxurious trappings; and perhaps most memorably, John Wheelwright, the hero of Dee's wonderful 2002 novel, "Palladio," who becomes the lackey of Mal Osborne, a legendary ad man with so much money he literally doesn't know what to do with it. All these characters -- and others in Dee's oeuvre -- are largely immune to, if not suspicious of, the lure of material wealth; indeed, the plots of those earlier novels bear out their fears. The teacher's students are narcissistic idiots. The novelist's massive advance wrecks his marriage. And Osborne? Well, let's resort to a cliché: His millions, ultimately, can't secure him the one thing he truly wants and, in fact, doom him to a kind of existential despair.

So it's both fitting and surprising that Dee has now turned his full attention to the very, very rich. His fifth novel, "The Privileges," is an odd, transfixing account of the rise and rise of a "charmed couple," Adam and Cynthia Morey, who forge their way up Manhattan's social ranks with their kids, April and Jonas, in tow. Composed in Dee's typically elegant style -- gorgeous, winding sentences in which high diction and low brush up against each other -- and structured episodically, the novel alights with the Moreys at four different points in their financial ascendance, starting with their Pittsburgh wedding, a few months after their graduation from a middling college. They are the first of their friends to marry, "the fearless ones, dismissive of warnings and permissions," and they use the occasion to divorce themselves from their working-class parents, whom they regard with adolescent disdain. Adam is "a handsome boy with a highly developed sense of charm"; Cynthia, beautiful, vain and crude, prone to statements like, "he makes me laugh and he makes me come."

Six years later, they've transformed themselves into typical Upper East Side strivers. He toils at a private equity firm, perversely repelled by his aging boss' attempts to peg him as heir apparent ("Something in Adam bristled at the thought of inheriting anything from anybody"); she clocks in at the gym and chauffeurs the kids to Dalton, increasingly despondent that "she had fallen into the underworld of women with nothing vital to do." Though Dee perfectly evokes the tedium and joy of tending to small children, the way one can get caught in "an afternoon that just seemed to refuse to pass," it can be difficult to muster sympathy for Cynthia, who "cop[s] to wanting to do some good in the world" but can think of no way to do so other than sitting on the boards of charities, though she lacks "the assets and the social position" to do this.

Luckily, Adam can supply those assets, through -- you guessed it -- insider trading, which he views not as a criminal act but as a higher calling or, at the very least, a way of circumventing the patriarchal structure that so bothers him: "It wasn't enough to trust in your future, you had to seize your future, pull it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic, sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony. . . . The noblest risks were the secret ones." Hmmmmm.

Soon the Moreys have moved from a two-bedroom overlooking an airshaft to a penthouse overlooking Hayden Planetarium. Six years later, in the novel's final section, they've entered into the freaky territory of the ultra-rich: private jet, family foundation and all. April, accordingly, has morphed into a Paris Hilton type, who considers herself "at the exact center of the . . . universe, young, hot women of privilege at the very peak of everything . . . desirable." Jonas, at the University of Chicago, tries to pass himself off as a normal middle-class junior rather than a kid whose parents rent out the entire New York Public Library for parties.

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