5/5 Random House Jonathan Dee has been the almost-it-white-young-male-American novelist for about 15 years. A writer of four culturally savvy novels, he’s had to watch fellow young, white, male, American novelists go on to National Book Award glory (Jonathan Franzen), not to mention watch younger, white, male, American novelists (Joshua Ferris) soar on to media adoration. Yet the fact remains that Dee is a writer of skill and emotional depth. His latest, The Privileges, should catapult him to darling status – deservedly.
Dee has written an electric, funny, tragic, loving tale of a family scaling the heights of finance in New York City, a family born, nursed and prep-schooled on the fiscally rich milk of the hedge fund. The novel begins with the wedding of Cynthia and Adam – two glossy, self-absorbed 22-year-olds. Cynthia and Adam go on to live the life of insider-trading zillionaires, obtaining the Manhattan penthouse, the villa in Anguilla, the half-hearted charitable trust. But where a lesser novelist might rely on sarcasm and satire, Dee opts for old-fashioned complexity. The wedding scene, a 32-page masterpiece, begins with a panoramic perspective that dips into the brains of all involved, from the wedding planner to her intoxicated son to Cynthia’s jealous mother.
His characters are stories in and of themselves, particularly Cynthia, a sexy savant who calls people skanks and pays off her estranged father’s girlfriend to leave his deathbed. Yet Dee approaches her – and all his characters – with understanding. How fantastic to think that in today’s ‘die banker!’ climate, a novelist could hook us on a family floating along on its gilded largess. But Dee manages to do it – seemingly with ease, the defining trait of his own characters and, perhaps, the defining trait of an era now at an end. Leigh Newman