Meet Adam and Cynthia Morey on their wedding day, so smart, so beautiful, so — dare we utter the word — perfect that they plunge into marriage, without a worry, at age 22, years before their classmates.
So begins Jonathan Dee's accomplished fifth novel, The Privileges, brimming with as much promise, and portent, as potentially await the golden couple. As lesser Cassandras in The Privileges speak of doom, and the reader is trained to expect such plummets, Adam and Cynthia continue their starry rise and take Manhattan as he, a Wall Street wizard, "put up numbers that pushed him into shamanistic territory." They're flawed. Unlawful, even. Adam conducts insider trading on the side, yet no Ivan Boesky jail time befalls him, only increased fortune.
Readers expecting a morality play, just punishment for infinite successes, should look elsewhere, one of the many ways that Dee steers clear of the conventional. Cynthia and Adam defy aging. They never stray; I can't think of the last time adultery wasn't a plot turn in a story of wealth. Indeed, the Moreys are continually rewarded with the ultimate objective of the blessed few: more. Two beautiful children, increasingly larger apartments until finally a townhouse, a large staff, a private jet.
In Cynthia and Adam's world, dishonesty serves a higher purpose: "The whole scheme, he reminded himself, had been for her benefit. . . . It wasn't about being rich per se. It was about living a big life, a life that was larger than life. Money was just the instrument."
Dee is a seamless writer, able to incorporate digressions into not only the hierarchy of finance, but also the exploitation of seriously challenged artists, opportunistic academics, the dissolution of modern extended families, the listless yet emotionally charged final days with a dying parent in hospice. He never mocks his characters or subverts their charms. It's the Moreys' complexity that separates The Privileges from other novels that mine the same shimmering urban terrain.