Review: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: January 5th, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Source: Personal Copy
After their fairy tale wedding, Adam and Cynthia Moray, who each come from poor backgrounds, quickly begin their life as society climbers in New York City. Both Adam's career and wealth start to rise when he begins working for a prestigious hedge fund while Cynthia, who's grown increasingly bored with her situation, decides she wants to become a mother. Now with a beautiful family and a successful job, Adam must make a choice about his future and decide how far he is willing to go and how much he is willing to risk to ensure the security of everything he holds dear. Split into four sections and spanning more than two decades, Dee's novel showcases how one family deals with the wealth, fortune, and privilege that life has dealt them.
One thing I rarely see in books is an author's decision to not actively pass judgement on his or her characters. The world created is one that reflects the compromised values of today's society and in this world the righteous are not always rewarded nor do the wicked receive their comeuppance. Dee doesn't take the easy road out as he crafts the story, and there are many points where I expected a certain stereotypical outcome but was continuously surprised. Overall, the story emphasizes the idea that all the money in the world can't fix one's problems, and that often the path to such wealth results in a very unfulfilling life in both a spiritual and ethical sense.
While the story was decent, the writing was hands down the star of the novel which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer. However, I felt like the development of the characters was a bit lacking and felt more on par with that of a short story collection. None of the Morays were likable, but there were compelling. Although, maybe Dee was commenting on a superficial world by creating superficial characters.
The Privileges is a story about a family, a marriage, and individuals. Adam and Cynthia are not flawless, but their relationship is one of unquestionable commitment. For most of the novel I kept expecting the dissolution of their marriage, which makes apparent my jaded attitude towards wealthy couples. I do wish Dee had delved deeper into the high finance angle. What about the risks and ethics involved? How about the ramifications of his insider trading? Also, the last section was a little too digressive for my tastes and didn't really tie into the story that had been built up.
While I may not have loved The Privileges, I can definitely see why the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer. There is something so tragically beautiful about a family who materially can have it all, but who can't seem to find contentment. Dee creates a solid story that might not be a page turner but definitely leaves a lot of food for thought.