I bought The Privileges after reading James Wood’s review in the New Yorker, so cold and hard and cynical did he make the book sound. Finally, a real satire of almost-present day New York City, in which money is discussed and no one has to learn their lesson. It seemed like the dark side of the UES/mommy/money beach books, Nanny Diaries, Wolves in Chic Clothing, etc. in which the reader is to identify with some slightly frumpy (but naturally pretty!) outsider, and the perfect other women must eventually be taken down a notch. The Privileges’ golden couple, the Moreys, only go up and up and up, and all they learn is that life gets better as you rise.
When I have tried to write satire, I have always foundered on plot, and for the first three of the book’s four sections, author Jonathan Dee doesn’t offer much. Yes, people get married and cheat and do drugs, but I was more enthralled by the extreme control of tone he achieves—semi-omniscent narration, with an undercurrent of rage—and the details of our protagonists’ lives. It is a fleshing out of the world suggested on the anonymous mommy blogs, in which people talk about why they need a full-time nanny and housekeeper despite not working outside the home. The details seemed spot-on in terms of schools and neighborhoods and trappings, without the shorthand of brand name-dropping. Cynthia Morey clearly sees herself as a Gwyneth, without the acting.
But then, in Part 4, things start to happen. New characters are introduced. Someone dies. The Moreys leave the golden circle of Manhattan, Amagansett, Anguilla. Their son Jonas takes an interest in, of all things, Outsider Art. And the novel lost me. It felt as if Dee had grown afraid of the book’s nihilism, or thought we hadn’t gotten the point that rich people don’t have to grow, except richer. The scenes in Florida, and particularly in Chicago, are awkward and unbelievable. Explanations and descriptions of various outsider artists’ work are dropped in. There are proper names and proper places. I wanted it to end on a high, poisonous note of triumph. All that glitters. But instead I was confused and disappointed. And that’s something no Morey would ever want to be.
(BTW, this is not the final cover. But I like this version much better than the insipid “society” photo Random House ended up using.)