Jonathan Dee’s new critically acclaimed novel “The Privileges” starts with a wedding, impressive for the deft writing that conveys the controlled chaos, the edgy anxieties, the many tensions springing from family members’ vying needs.
"The Privileges" By Jonathan Dee. Random House, New York, 2010. 258 pages. $25.
Jonathan Dee’s new critically acclaimed novel “The Privileges” starts with a wedding, impressive for the deft writing that conveys the controlled chaos, the edgy anxieties, the many tensions springing from family members’ vying needs. A mother tells her daughter, “This is your special day,” and the daughter smirks in amusement.
The bride and groom, Cynthia and Adam Morey, have it their way instead. Their $38,000 wedding, bankrolled by a kindly stepfather, is a loud and festive celebration of the dynamic couple. They are the first among their admiring peers to take the step. The two are wholly unhesitant in their love and commitment, with a shared understanding driving them forward. One key characteristic in their shared vision is absence of past. Past, once committed, is forgotten. There is no looking backwards and therefore, there’s no karma, no consequence. There is only forward motion; only opportunity waiting to be expertly seized. It’s significant that they start with nothing and hail from dysfunction, one take on the tantalizing American dream.
Dee has created a gifted, gorgeous power couple to tell his story. They inhabit a world of high finance in Manhattan, and they share skewed values that serve family but violate social and legal norms. In “The Privileges” and perhaps in real life, families like this, flush with charisma and know-how, live successful lives on a parallel course that resembles normal but isn’t. Con artists on a higher plane are still con artists. They tender cash, favors, generous deeds, their fabulous presence for their varied transactions.
Told in four parts, beginning with the mesmerizing wedding, the story tracks the Moreys’ progress through to the death of Cynthia’s mostly absent father and the dangerous antics of their two children as they enter adulthood. Cynthia and Adam are remarkable for their physical beauty and social skills, though Cynthia is viciously honest in her communications if it suits her. They work very hard as parents and in furtherance of Adam’s career. Adam works for a company that makes investments in promising businesses. From the safety of this job he is able to spot opportunities for insider trading. He gets very rich taking extreme risks, quietly shouldering the burden while his wife numbly raises the children. They do not share their discomforts and problems with each other. Life is a fast-moving mainstream that Cynthia steps out of for the time she raises the children. She re-enters to serve as the Morey foundation figurehead.
Amoral, of course, is the word that comes to mind as you ponder the Moreys. They have a value system and it includes a fierce, unconditional love of their two increasingly imperiled children. It is possible for readers to confuse shared family values with sympathy. Adam and Cynthia steadfastly support each other’s most powerful and socially violent acts. Their bond, interpreted by their son as an epic love, is a bond wrought by a shared and deviant vision epic only in its coincidental sameness. When they assure their children that they, too, will meet compatible mates similar in devotion, you wonder if such serendipity could indeed repeat itself.
Page 2 of 2 - Toward the book’s end, the children who are the real Morey legacy — beyond the nonprofit foundation they create to leave their mark — each undergo a period of unconsciousness. When they awake from the darkness and their confusion, they find themselves aligning with the Morey code. Money is safety, a tool for getting what is necessary, something that moves you forward, something that justifies behavior. Sometimes the Morey code, though lived by a privileged few, looks frighteningly like the norm. Sympathies, then, require vigilant scrutiny.
Rae Francoeur’s book “Free Fall: A Late in Life Love Affair,” comes out in April. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com.