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Oh! Darling

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Penguin Books, $16.00, 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 apartment in the Big Apple 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-armed, 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 Darlings (paper)The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally trained spouse Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to its conclusion.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this powerful 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.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “Alger…  knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power…  a suspenseful, twisty story.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Full of Grace

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.94, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect.   There was no karma.   The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the start of Pictures of You, two women – April and Isabelle – are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide on a foggy highway.   Only Isabelle survives.   And she’s joined in the role of survivor by her husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam.   In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to rescue him.

It’s quite an amazing set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt.   Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that calls to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg), she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story.   One lesson has to do with powerlessness:  “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Then there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble:  “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.”   “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress…  (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the notion that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life.   When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears…  each one said the same thing:  Come home.  Come home.”

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes.   The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not.   And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved.   There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account.   All in all, this is an amazing second novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Magically written, heartbreakingly honest.”   Jodi Picoult

The reader who enjoys this book may also want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.  

  You can find our review of American Music here:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/late-for-the-sky/

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