The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $26.95, 352 pages)
“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…” Bruce Springsteen
Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country. This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital g. It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.
As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself. Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling. (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management… Morty was a brilliant investor.”) The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars. Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team. He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.
It’s a Grisham-like opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side. And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small Manhattan apartment goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour. “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers? For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve… a ruthless will to succeed. (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think: Those are the offspring of killers.”
Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill. “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.” The strong-chinned, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars… His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”
To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice. For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom. When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal. (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)
The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally-trained wife Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to an end. The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling. Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this stunning debut novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.
Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats? You will need to read The Darlings to find out.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Darlings will be released on Monday, February 20, 2012.