Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Missed it by that much...

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad may have won the 2011 Pulitzer Price for fiction, but it had some respectable competition from some great reads. One of the also-rans, Jonathan Dee's The Privileges, is an unsung but immensely readable novel. In this modern-day love story, set against the backdrop of Wall Street greed and venality, Dee offers a page-turning and curiously non-judgmental view of the unethical behavior that made some people very, very rich.

The novel opens with the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey. They are attractive, savvy, fiercely devoted to each other and determined not to repeat the mistakes of their dysfunctional parents. A life of unlimited possibilities stretches before them and they intend to have it all -- and quickly. Adam goes to work at a private equity firm, Cynthia stays home with their two children, and to outward appearances their life in Manhattan is idyllic. But, in reality, it's on shaky ground. For Cynthia, ennui is setting in. For Adam, things aren't happening fast enough. Being upwardly mobile is fine, but it's not as good as arriving on a private jet. Believing his family deserves more than he's providing, Adam embarks on some very risky insider trading. It pays off in enormous wealth but imperils the couple's children and their own humanity in ways that neither saw coming.

Dee has a deft hand for characterization -- far from being stereotypical greed-heads, Adam and Cynthia are breathing, sentient, self-aware and appealing, and Dee makes us care about them. There's no reason we should like these people, but we do anyway. Their dishonesty somehow just doesn't feel, well, dishonest. Is it acceptable to behave unethically when it's done for love? Dee's new twist on an old story may surprise you.


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