Monday, March 21, 2011

The Privileges

"For the last six or eight years, every sight of her daughter has caused a certain look to cross Ruth's face, a look of just-you-wait, though the question "wait for what?" is not one she could answer so she keeps her mouth shut...self-satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights into the record."

--Jonathan Dee, The Privileges.

What goes around comes around.  He'll get his. You can't be good at everything.  Bad karma.  She had it coming.  Nobody's really happy. 

We've all uttered such sanctimonious tripe, mostly to make ourselves feel better about someone who went ahead and got something they wanted rather than waiting, like the rest of us, for permission from some unseen authority figure.  Usually she is better-looking than we are and got to be both prom queen and valedictorian. Or she's the one who everyone wanted to date in college, because she was totally gorgeous. And then she married the captain of the rugby team who now runs a hedge fund and had three beautiful children and moved into increasingly enviable houses.  I know a woman like this.  She also holds a law degree and I think does work of some significance to the community.  Thankfully I don't know her well, not that she'd want to be my friend anyway.

Cynthia Morey is just such a character, and Jonathan Dee's rendering of her gives us a sense of what it might be like to live a charmed existence, and he does it so well that we can't really hate her.  We don't really feel sorry for her, either, so it's a crafty bit of character development. 

The novel opens with the wedding of Cynthia and Adam. They are joined at the tender age of 22, and each spring from congenitally unhappy families, each unhappy in their own way, of course.  She gets pregnant on the honeymoon.  They rapidly have another child.  Adam works for a crazy rich guy who casts him as a surrogate son but soon makes demands on him, and Adam decides to head his own, tremendously risky path. 

Cynthia is, naturally, totally hot.  Not in an ice-queen sort of trophy wife way, which would be gratifying to us lesser birds, but in a way that makes her husband a very happy man behind closed doors.  She's not just good-looking and married to a man as attractive as she, but the kicker is that she loves him.  Their children are beautiful.  She doesn't have many friends--big surprise--but her sense of humor and general canniness make her difficult not to admire.  Then she and Adam get wildly, unfathomably--until Dee tells us the details--rich.  Stinking rich.

Once you start reading, you can't stop. Surely the fall will be painful and swift.  Won't the kids, with their Dalton background and the vacations at private villa in Costa Rica, fall off the branch early, rotten and overripe? Won't Cynthia succumb to an eating disorder or Adam to drink, the money man's stereotypical crutch? (The stereotype, in this case, is perhaps earned: I have a friend in the business who told me, without shock, that he had grown rather concerned about a fellow who worked for him when the guy in question was up to about thirty drinks a day. I actually met the guy, in a bar, and he did indeed appear to hold his liquor rather well, but also seemed to be in outstanding physical condition and was clearly brilliant and driven.)

When it comes to happiness, I hark back to the scene in As Good as it Gets, when Greg Kinnear and Helen Hunt are talking about how no one is happy, that everyone has stuff to deal with.  And then Jack Nicholson gets, as he almost always does, the best line.  He looks at the pair, incredulous, and says, That's just the crap the rest of us say to make ourselves feel better.  There really are people who live happy lives.  Their lives usually involve lakes and canoes and noodle salad.

Cynthia and Adam have almost more noodle salad than they can handle, and it's always good, even when the weekend cook prepares it.  Don't hate them because they're beautiful.  Who of us really gets what we deserve?

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