Reluctantly, I have just finished up Jonathan Dee’s wonderful novel, The Privileges. The Privileges is a character-driven novel written to perfection, focusing on the charmed Morey family’s rise from middle class existence to super-rich prominence. Though not always likeable, the Moreys are certainly believable. Despite the family’s apparent disregard for the universally accepted standard of morality, the authorial voice remains objective throughout, allowing the reader to determine his/her own opinion of the controversial Moreys.
The Privileges opens with a great first sentence: “A wedding!” The first section of the book then goes on to detail the events that comprised twenty-two-year-old Adam and Cynthia’s said wedding: “the first of a generation”. Bride Cynthia is beautiful, crude and painfully unsentimental. During one exchange with her mother (whose new husband is financing’s the lion’s share of the event), Cynthia mocks an attempt at connection by laughing at her mother’s claim that this is “her special day”. Adam, too, is attractive and disconnected from his parents. In fact, he spends the majority of the morning of his wedding dreading the brunch he is scheduled to attend with them along with his brother. However, despite their shortcomings it is clear that the couple is in love, or at the very least, extremely well suited for each other.
As the book progresses, the reader follows the Moreys as they graduate from one social class to the next. Adam spends the early part of his career at a standard brokerage house, but finds it difficult to advance without a business degree. Cognizant of his limitations, Adam utilizes his irresistible charm and social acumen to secure himself a career at a somewhat less august private equity firm. Meanwhile, Cynthia bears and rears the couple’s two young children, April and Jonas. It is at this point in their lives that Cynthia’s confidence and happiness begin to erode. After a humiliating job interview, Cynthia begins to realize that she will never have a traditional career and becomes depressed by the dwindling possibilities in her life. Adam, motivated by his great devotion to bring happiness to his wife, challenges himself to accelerate his family’s acquisition of wealth via an investing scheme involving insider trading. His plan is executed flawlessly and the Moreys continue their climb up the social ladder.
Once the Moreys have achieved the status of the super-rich, the book’s perspective flits between the couple and their philanthropic work and April and Jonas, their nearly adult children. April is the somewhat straightforward product of her socially ambitious parents: a Paris Hilton-type party girl without focus or ambition of her own. Jonas, on the other hand, attempts to rebel against his advantaged upbringing, at one point ironically naming the punk band he plays with The Privileges. As the novel rushes toward its conclusion, the choices the members of the Morey family make provoke questions regarding values and family in the reader, if not always in the characters themselves.
The Moreys as a unit are an interesting specimen in that they exemplify what appears to be a growing trait in modern American families: isolation. Though young and inexperienced, once Adam and Cynthia are married, they disconnect themselves nearly completely from their parents and siblings and focus on their own progeny. The couple shares the belief that success and happiness can only be achieved when one lives in the present and that reflecting on one’s past does nothing but sabotage potential success. As a result, the Moreys come to lack the ethical integrity that more reflective couples would likely possess.
One point on which I agree with nearly every reviewer of this book is that the writing itself is superb. Dee’s style is uniquely elegant, humorous and nonjudgmental all at the same time. Though his characters’ actions are often sordid and reprehensible, Dee’s writing encourages the reader to judge his characters for him/herself. Dee also masters the difficult challenge of integrating modern vernacular into literary writing. The author’s ability to spend time in the psyche of the ditzy twenty-one-year-old April without annoying this reader is certainly worth a mention.
Overall, I loved the time I spent with Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges. An engaging plot, controversial characters and wonderful writing have combined to make a Jonathan Dee fan out of me.