The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee


Purchased at

Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges had a lot going for it when I first picked it up:

— I am intrigued by fiction that is willing to enter the “business” world (Tom Wolfe and Joshua Ferris come to mind) and there are not a lot of literary novels that venture into that territory.
— James Wood wrote a very perceptive and positive New Yorker review which was my first introduction to the book. The subtitle to the review (“Two novels about money without morals”) is recommendation enough.
— When the physical copy arrived, it featured cover blurbs from Richard Ford, Elizabeth Strout, Tom Perrotta, Jay McInerney and Jonathan Franzen. The publisher is obviously swinging for the fences. And, perhaps, that range of endorsements might be the first “pink” flag that says the book is not all that it might be.
— Mrs. KfC reads almost all the non-fiction books about the current financial collapse (Too Big to Fail, The Quants and The Sellout are just a start — if you are interested, please lobby in comments for a guest post. I will do my best to convince her.). She both summarizes and evaluates them for me so I was hoping that I could come up with a return favor from the fiction side of things.

And in his opening pages, Dee meets those high opening expectations. Adam and Cynthia are 22, he is already employed on Wall Street, and they are about to be married. The opening words of the novel:

A wedding! The first of a generation; the bride and groom are just 22, young to be married these days. Most of their friends flew in yesterday, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogrates into a world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel profoundly unready.

[ASIDE: Mrs. KfC and I did live in Pittsburgh for a few years at about the same time this wedding is set. I’m pretty sure we belonged to the Club where the wedding takes place. Despite its football team, Pittsburgh, in modern America, is in “the middle of nowhere”. Undoubtedly, that influenced my opinion of the opening section of the book.]

That is an entrancing opening. If you weren’t the first couple in your demographic group to be married, you were still at some version of this wedding and Dee captures the life-expanding questions that simply being there brought to mind (“Oh my God, we are starting to move on — what next?”). The “first” wedding is one of those gates of growing up and the 32 pages that he spends on it are a set piece of exceptional brilliance (and yes, I don’t often get that excited). Of course, it turns into an unmitigated drunk but wasn’t that the case for most of our first wedding experiences — of our generation, not our relatives or remarrying parents?

Cynthia gets pregnant on the honeymoon and that will add another dimension to the evolution/isolation of Adam and Cynthia. Having married early, they have moved on from their single friends; having a child early, means they are a decade or more younger than their fellow parents. At the tender age of 22, they have ensured their isolation forever.

Part two of the novel jumps ahead seven years. Adam and Cynthia now have two children (April, 6, and Jonas, 5). The couple went through three nannies in two years after Jonas was born; Cynthia has been a mother and homemaker ever since. She is already showing a tendency to evolve into the nomadic Manhattan lady who lunches (and keeps redecorating ever larger new apartments). Adam spent four years at Morgan Stanley but he was going nowhere (no MBA), so he has moved on to Perini Capital, a private equity firm, “an outfit with a shitload of money but so few people worked there that Adam knew everyone’s name by the end of the first day”:

The money, pre-bonus at least, was actually a little less than he’d been making at Morgan, but it wasn’t about that. It was about potential upside, and also about his vision of what a man’s work should be: a tight group of friends pushing themselves to make one another rich. No hierarchies or job descriptions; there was the boss and then there was everyone else, and the boss, Barry Sanford, loved Adam from day one. Sanford was a white-haired libertine who was on his fourth wife and had named the company after his boat.

At this point in the book, author Dee has done everything 100 per cent right — and he will continue to do that for the next 100 pages. Adam and Cynthia are not just successful, they are mega-successful. They don’t actually try to do it or know why they succeed or put much effort into it, they just are (and as Wood notes in his review, Dee conveys this in a non-emotional kind of language that is particularly effective). Yet, they are very, very isolated and they are bored because things are too easy. A chance encounter at a charity event on the Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that serves as a naval museum on the Hudson River, moves the book into its next phase. Adam meets a young broker of dubious ethics; almost on a whim, he decides to start a shadowy, illegal network that will indulge in insider trading, based on his knowledge from Perini. As far as he is concerned, there is no morality, amorality or immorality to the enterprise:

In the rare moments when he stepped back and thought about it at all, it was vital to Adam’s conception of his professional life that he wasn’t stealing from anybody. There was nothing zero-sum about the world of capital investment: you created wealth where there was no wealth before, and if you did it well enough there was no end to it. What Adam did was just an initiative based on that idea, an unusually bold manifestation of it. Why should he be restricted — or, worse, restrict himself — from finding a way to act on what he was enterprising enough to know and to synthesize?

Adam actually extends this perverted logic — in his view, his insider trading scheme becomes a self-administered bonus plan. He only makes about $500,000 a year off it (much less than his legitimate income) so it is hardly a big deal, but it does open some new opportunities. Cynthia, meanwhile, is growing into her role as a New York uber-wife. She may be decades younger than the Botoxed matrons around her, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t exercise her considerable influence, particularly after the couple sets up their charitable foundation. Once Adam moves on from private equity Perini to the hedge fund and derivatives business, things become even more interesting, and lucrative of course — bigger money means bigger chances for abuse (Dee is only too accurately reflecting reality on that point).

And, unfortunately, this is where The Privileges starts to fall apart, at least for this reader. Dee does such a good job of setting up his story — the couple who have nothing but privilege and who enjoy exercising it — that it is obvious they will face some kind of judgment. Not only do Adam and Cynthia need to pay a price for this life of success, so do their children.

It is not a spoiler to say that that is where Dee takes the book, but I won’t say how. I will observe, however, that in making the choices he does at that point it is almost as though the author became frightened of how good his book is. Big ideas (and he certainly does a good job of introducing them) deserve big, explosive failures — Dee opts instead for much more introverted outcomes, that just are not up to the rest of his book.

That is only my impression, so if you are inclined to pick up The Privileges please ignore my grumpy opinion of the conclusion. Most of the novel does deliver on the promise of the blurbs and it rightly deserves to be included in the relatively small group of novels that turn literary attention to the corporate world. I am hoping that in a few weeks, my opinion of its ending will become more friendly — at this point, however, I do wish Dee’s editor had sent him back for a rewrite of the last 80 pages. Don’t in any way let that stop you from buying and reading the book. The parts that do work are more than enough to offset those that don’t.

23 Responses to “The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I am thrilled to see a book review with the words private equity, insider trading, hedge fund, and derivatives! Your negtive opinion of the conclusion notwithstanding, I feel I have to read and support this book. I feel too many of today’s writers just have no conception of this part of the world — it is usually academic. Yet Bartelby was a scrivener, Nick Carraway a bond dealer. I’d like to see this important and importantly tragic world explored more! What are some great novels that contain the executive/business world where it is obvious the author knows what she’s dealing with, where these characters aren’t just representations of greed?


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do recommend the book, despite my misgivings — for much the same reasons that you look forward to it. As for novels set in that world, I am one of those readers who is a Tom Wolfe fan so both A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities hit my list and I have read both more than once. I acknowledge that a lot of people don’t like Wolfe (to the point that I have given up arguing with them — if you don’t like him, you don’t).

    Louis Begley is an author who is familiar with this world, although he tends to use it more as a setting than the centre of his novels. Both The Man Who Was Late and As Max Saw It would qualify for comparison. I think Begley is somewhat of an underrated author — Wartime Lies won a Hemmingway-PEN award (it is a Holocaust novel) and About Schmidt is a much better book than the movie that was made from it. Neither quite fit the criteria of executive/business world that we are talking about here, however.


  3. Mary Says:

    Mrs KFC sounds like a woman after my own heart as I too have been fascinated to read articles and books about the economic crisis – particularly from a UK viewpoint. I’m not an economist but I felt all kinds of forebodings about the indebtedness of people in the UK – it seemed part of a mad economic spiral. Now we’re being urged to consume even more to get us out of the crisis…..
    I’m very intrigued by your review of The Privileges not least your hints about the latter part of the novel. I’m looking forward to reading it but there’s no sign of it on Amazon UK at an affordable price. Similarly I do so want to read The Bishop’s Man after your review but it doesn’t seem to be in paperback in the UK yet ( or here in France). Very frustrating !


  4. Guy A. Savage Says:

    After seeing a load of 9-11 novels (9-11 in the forefront or background), I’ve been wondering if we would start to see a flow of books that deal with the economic crisis as some part of the plot.

    The book does sound interesting but I get a bit tired of reading of the woes of the ‘uber-rich’. I know you purposely (and graciously) avoided spoilers but I have a feeling that this novel might really take me down that annoying road.

    On another note, I really loved About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered. Both marvellous novels and yes the first was so much much better than that awful film. I read another couple of Begley novels after reading the two Schmidts and I wasn’t too impressed.


  5. Kerry Says:

    I am looking forward to this one. Despite your misgivings (but because of your recommendation), this is one the 2010 TBR. Yours was a great review and I actually really appreciate a review that both makes me eager to read the book and lowers my expectations. Too-high expectations can kill a book for me, even a very good book. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’m with you on the post 9-11 novels — my particular complaint there was how many writers of reputation (Updike, Delillo come to mind) produced dreadful work on the theme. And while I suspect the financial crisis will produce a similar slew, this book avoids the problem of only exploring the obvious. Part of that is that Dee’s previous novels (which I haven’t read) also feature a version of this world (the advertising business, actually). More important, the book isn’t so much about their woes as a study of their amorality and assumptions of their “privileges” (the novel is very well-titled — in some ways it is reminiscent of some of the French novels with their despicable aristocrats). If you liked Begley’s Schmidt novels, I’m pretty sure you would like this book — although I suspect like me you will find Dee underreaches when it comes to the conclusion.

    Kerry: If you had asked me at page 200, I would have said this was the best book that I had read in a long, long while. So the fact that the rest of it didn’t live up to my expectations may actually say more about me than it does about the book — maybe I wanted it to go in a direction that the author did not want to take it. I did think about the ToB list a couple of times when I was reading this — there seem to be quite a few good novels featuring the urban underclass (Lowbody, Fever Chart, Miles From Nowhere) but there aren’t many up the scale (Let the Great World Spin does have both). Great World would have been my favorite from last year of that bunch; this is a much better book.
    Mary: Keep searching for The Bishop’s Man — I saw indications that Vintage published a paperback in March that is supposedly out of stock now. In my experience that often reflects just a delayed publication. The Book Depository does show The Privileges available at a decent price, but I’m wondering if their expansion into the U.S. means that I now get quoted on American books shipped from there since the system knows I am Canadian. Whatever the case, it should be available soon — Dee is an established novelist of reputation (I think this is novel five) whose previous works have UK editions.


  7. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin–interesting. I’ll think about it….

    Yes too many authors do seemed determined to wedge in the 9-11 novel somehow or another. Don’t know what that is all about.

    You mentioned the blurps from other authors. I know what you mean. Someone told me recently they read a blurp praising the cover. That speaks volumes and is a dead-give-away. I wonder if authors are paid for that or if it’s some sort of contractual obligation?


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My understanding is that blurbs come in three categories:

    1. Authors from the same publishing house who are expected to help each other out (don’t know if that extends to contractual obligation, but it might) and don’t get paid.
    2. Other names (often meaning non-writers) who do get an honoraria.
    3. Genuine friends who want to help sell the book.


  9. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Amazon reviewers seem to agree with you. Many reviewers express the idea that they felt cheated by the novel or that it was ultimately unsatisfying.

    To quote Meat Loaf: All revved up with no place to go.


  10. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin, am interested in this novel and despite your provisos you’ve moved me further down the path of being sold on it. The blurbs (especially from Franzen) sounded too good to be true but are evidently at least partly true. Franzen worries me: I’m thinking about reading How To Sell by Clancy Martin based on his recommend as well…just hope he’s not spreading the largesse in advance of his own imminent re-emergence into the novel stakes.

    I haven’t read any Begley so am unaware of the full extent of my blasphemy when I say I quite liked the film of About Schmidt.

    Re: Mrs KfC’s tracking of the crunch: has she read Whoops! by John Lanchester? It contains a lot of stuff that could be considered primer material but it’s concise, clear-eyed and wry in its descriptions of the lunacy that has brought us to this pass.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy: For me, the blurb that most captures the book is the one from Elizabeth Strout (and that is a bit of a surprise, because her books aren’t much like this one). For those who don’t have access to the physical book, the author of Olive Kitteridge says:

    “Here is an indcredibly readable, intelligent, incisive portrait of a particular kind of American family. Jonathan Dee takes us inside the world of what desire for wealth can do, and cannot do, for the self, the soul, and the family. The Privileges is told with admirable consciousness and yet with great breadth, and the reader is swept along, watching the complications of such desire unfold.”

    I suspect Strout was less disappointed with the conclusion than I was. I did think about What’s For Dinner? which you recommended to me while I was reading this book — Schuyler’s characters missed the boat that Adam and Cynthia managed to catch, but in many ways they both have the same character (or lack thereof).

    And there is nothing the matter with About Schmidt, the film, except that the book is so much better. Sometimes films that are only half as good as the book are still good films.

    Lanchester’s book is on the way — I’ve read a number of his LRB essays which seem to be part of the book. Most of what Mrs. KfC has read has been centred on the American experience; JL’s book does cast a much wider net. And it is one of the few not written by somebody who is known mainly as a financial journalist, although that seems to be where he spends most of his time now.


  12. leroyhunter Says:

    Sounds like About Schmidt is a book worth reading…

    Glad to hear Whoops! is en route…hope Mrs KfC enjoys it.


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy: Just noticed that the Lanchester book we ordered is IOU not Whoops. Since the subtitle (Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay) is the same, I’m assuming this is one of those books that has a different North American title. I’ll admit to preferring IOU to Whoops, although that opinion is based on not even seeing the book.


  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    First off, I’d love Mrs KfC to do a guest post about books on the credit crunch, that would be fascinating. I’d like to hear her thoughts on Gillian Tett’s book, for example.

    Leaving that aside, this does sound interesting and I’m a sucker for books set in the business world, so rarely addressed. Most authors are utterly ignorant of topics such as private equity, derivatives and the financial world, and it’s reflected in the lack of decent treatment. Most of the books set in that world are mediocre crime novels written by ex-lawyers or traders.

    I am disappointed that yet again there’s insider trading. Years ago, when I saw Wall Street, I remember thinking that it hadn’t hit the target at all because Gordon Gekko wasn’t shown being a predatory capitalist – he was just a crook with braces (suspenders for North American readers). That’s too easy, the real targets, what was really happening, was missed.

    Similarly, I appreciate it’s a novel and not a polemic, but the issues around private equity are more about whether it adds any value at all or is simply a question of leverage plus rhetoric, are the profits being made arising because of improved management and incentivisation or through bubble economics and cost-cutting? That sort of thing. I’d love to see those real issues addressed, the real lifestyles examined, and not once again the lapse into criminality.

    I think my concern is that it’s a bit easy. People understand insider dealing, what I’m more interested in though is the mix of avarice and certainty that fuels so many in this world, the sense of manifest destiny – that one is where one is because one is smarter and more dedicated than the competition. The impact on one’s life of believing that everything one has, one deserves. That’s interesting stuff, it sounds like this addresses that worldview to an extent, which is where my interest is piqued, but then goes for judgement which interests me less.

    In real life, judgement rarely follows that neatly. Most masters of the universe stay just that.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    In Dee’s defence, I would observe that the entry to insider trading in the novel is actually through the whole question of just how private equity creates value (I think the quote I included gives a pretty clear indication of how the author leans).

    That said, and as the novel’s title implies, this book is more about the sense of manifest destiny that you cite (good use of the phrase, I must say). And I would say the outcome is more one of negative consequence than judgment.

    I liked the book well enough that I have already obtained Dee’s Palladio which promises to include both Berkeley and the advertising industry. Now there’s a story line that speaks to my generation. 🙂


  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll definitely be buying it Kevin, novels on this subject are rare enough, good ones (even if not consistently so all the way through) are even rarer.

    Palladio sounds good too actually, an author to watch clearly.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry, I overlooked this before. Mrs. KfC is leaving for Spain for two weeks today but upon her return I will ask for a guest post on books that deal with financial meltdown.


  18. BigRedGuy Says:

    Enjoyed the book. Not many fiction books take place inside the world of private equity / hedge funds other than Stephen Frey novels. However, as another posted stated, Jonathan Dee either needed to rewrite the last 80 pages or add 40 pages as I was confused what the ending was supposed to mean. Great detail otherwise that makes situations / characters come to life. Also enjoyed observations that changed as characters changed or matured. Overall give the book a B.


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BigRedGuy: Thanks for the comment — I think your assessment (both overall and the weakness of the end) is very much what I experienced as well.


  20. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities far more than this book because I felt I knew what Wolfe thought about his characters and besides it was just so cruel and funny. With The Privileges, although the wedding scene was handled with great verve after that I found the novel developed a peculiarly flat quality not helped by the disorienting jumps in time. I was left with the feeling that Dee liked Cynthia and Adam too much – though there was nothing much there to like – and thus kept trying to bail them out by reminding us how much they loved each other despite their distasteful behaviour and lifestyle. Perhaps the development of Adam’s hedge funds and Cynthia’s charitable work were supposed to be read ironically but as we had very little access to the characters’ interior motivations there were no spaces into which readers could tease out the questions of belief and motivation. As for the last section – the deathbed scene and Jonas’s kidnapping – these seemed to be from another novel entirely.


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Your comment is timely — with Chelsea Clinton’s wedding this weekend, I could not help but be reminded of some aspects of this novel. I did find them the more successful ones. From the distance of a few months, I also agree with your more critical assessments. While there was a lot to like in this book, the frustration is that it could have been so much more. Dee does such a good job in the set-up (roughly the first half of the book) that the last half seems to be one of rising disappointment, with a climax that does seem to be from another novel entirely. I will say that I was impressed enough to keep an eye out for future work.


  22. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Has Mrs. KFC read The Big Short by Michael Lewis? Everyone tells me it’s great. As for Privileges, I read this book on your recommendation, Kevin, and I can’t thank you enough–one of the best books I’ve read recently. I actually appreciated the ending–perhaps not as spectacularly dramatic as The Bonfire of the Vanities, but nonetheless very realistic and quietly tragic. Dee’s writing reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri’s–he conveyed the themes brilliantly through the characters of the novel. There is so much to explore in this book (yes, I do have my book groups in mind): issues of identity vis-a-vis others’ expectations, life as a performance, authenticity vs. taking on a role, reality vs. insanity, privacy/ voyeurism, the rejection of one’s past…I could go on! I highly recommend this book–very thought-provoking and very readable, too–a nice bonus. Thanks again.


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. KfC has read The Big Short — her review of that (and some other books about the meltdown) is here. Fans of Mrs. KfC’s reviews of financial books should know that she is thinking about writing a new post, once she gets back from her current trip.

    I’m glad you liked The Privileges (and I think it is the kind of book that suits book clubs, since it has so many story lines). I have another Dee on hand — Palladio — but haven’t had the chance to get to it yet.,


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