“Let me tell you about the very rich,” Fitzgerald wrote. “They are different from you and me.” This maxim, whether or not it is true, has been the guiding principle behind everything from Edith Wharton’s society novels to much of Aaron Spelling’s television opus, and it is also at the heart of Jonathan Dee’s new novel, The Privileges. Adam and Cynthia Morey, the self-made couple whose story Dee tells from their wedding day onward, are filthy rich beyond most of our imaginings. They live in an insular world of their own careful construction, but for all their success, lack one essential possession: a moral compass.
Adam and Cynthia are perfectly matched. Attractive, charismatic, ambitious and smart, they have gravitated to each other with a Darwinian inevitability. As the novel opens at their elaborately staged—not to say excessive—wedding in Pittsburgh, we see them already closing ranks against their dysfunctional extended families. Settled on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Moreys have their children young—a daughter, April, and son, Jonas—a fact that casts Cynthia in the reluctant role of stay-at-home mother while Adam climbs the Wall Street ladder. Discontent at Morgan Stanley, Adam takes a job at a private equity firm, an ideal fit for his talents. Soon, he is the favorite of the firm’s founding partner.
But the considerable remuneration and perks at Perini Capital—one year, he gets a $250,000 bonus—are not enough for Adam, who seizes an opportunity to indulge in insider trading on a grand scale. He grows fabulously wealthy, stashing millions in offshore accounts. The money affords Cynthia, who for all her intelligence never questions its source, the chance to move to larger and larger apartments and second homes. She indulges the children’s every whim, and by the time they are in high school Cynthia has become the “cool mom,” lording a misguided sense of righteousness over the older, more staid parents.
The Privileges is not your standard cautionary tale about the evils of ill-gotten gains. Indeed, when it looks as if Adam might get caught and the Moreys’ world might come crashing down, he and Cynthia rise from the ashes like the phoenix and set up a charitable foundation that allows them, particularly Cynthia, to bask in public adulation. Their children, now young adults, take two diverging paths. April becomes the vacuous party girl, convinced of her own superiority despite the lack of evidence to support that claim. Jonas, however, forges into new territory, studying art history at the University of Chicago and trying to distance himself from his family wealth as much as possible. Searching for “authenticity,” he is enthralled by “outsider art,” but takes his obsession too far, placing himself at grave risk.
We are told again and again in The Privileges that Cynthia and Adam have remained deliriously in love over the years and that they have created their family from whole cloth as some grand ideal. Yet, with the possible exception of Jonas, they all seem incredibly lonely, locked in their little boxes of condescension. Neither Adam nor Cynthia has any true, lasting friendships, and they long ago discarded their parents and siblings. Their lives have been about money and money alone, and these very smart and sophisticated people remain clueless about the cause of their discontent. Sadly, even the moderately socially conscious Jonas seems anxious to return to the sheltered fold when, at novel’s end, his single venture into the real world turns ugly.
Jonathan Dee’s achievement in The Privileges is the way he adeptly penetrates the mindset of these relentlessly narcissistic characters, giving us insight into what drives them in their need to acquire and dominate. It’s hard to imagine anyone liking, or even sympathizing with, Adam and Cynthia, and yet Dee’s discerning portrayal of their inner lives keeps the pages turning. As a chronicler of this world of wealth and advantage, Dee is a dispassionate observer, neither condemning nor exalting the Moreys. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness: we ought to hate these people, but somehow we do not.