There’s an unavoidable risk in basing a novel on recent events like the 2008 financial crisis, since the drama of real life usually outruns the imagination of even the most talented writer. First-time novelist Cristina Alger, who brings to her task stints at Goldman Sachs and an elite law firm, avoids most of those pitfalls to create a credible, fast-paced story out of the collapse of a Bernie Madoff-like investment scam.
The Darlings gets off to a leisurely start, but when investment wizard Morty Reis’ Aston Martin is found abandoned on the Tappan Zee Bridge on Thanksgiving Eve 2008, the plot picks up momentum that never flags. Reis has been managing a sizable chunk of socialite Carter Darling’s hedge fund, and his apparent suicide occurs just as an investigation of his Ponzi scheme is about to break. Reis’ disappearance sets in motion a scramble to escape the fraud’s repercussions.
Darling, who’s nearing the end of his career and who’s probably guilty of no more than carelessness in failing to investigate his friend’s uncannily consistent investment returns, sees himself being pulled into the vortex. When he turns to his lawyer, Sol Penzell, best known for his skills as a high-powered “fixer,” thoughts of accountability quickly give way to desperate attempts at self-preservation. His business partner and even his son-in-law aren’t safe from his attempt to deflect the blame. Most of the inhabitants of this crumbling world bring to mind the Titanic’s passengers when they first learned the ship had hit an iceberg: They sense the danger but somehow can’t bring themselves to accept that disaster lies ahead.
Alger’s experiences enable her to create a plausible cast of characters: money managers who measure life’s meaning in dollars, duplicitous attorneys, conscientious civil servants and a loyal secretary who blows the whistle on her longtime boss. Whether it’s a lavishly appointed Park Avenue apartment, a gracious weekend home in East Hampton or an overheated government office conference room, her settings are sketched with equal realism.
Alger’s book is no Bonfire of the Vanities-like satire on the misdeeds of the “Masters of the Universe.” Like any good novelist, she’s more interested in the motivations and choices of her characters than in passing judgment. If she aspires to the status of a 21st-century Edith Wharton, chronicling the deeds and misdeeds of New York’s upper class, she’s off to a respectable start.