The New Gilded Class

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Christina Alger’s debut The Darlings follows the Darling family headed by a billionaire financier through the financial crisis. Luckily, these rich people are really screwed up.

It is fall, 2008, and New York is reeling from the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Paul Ross, an attorney at a Wall Street law firm, is one of the casualties. Fortunately he is married to Merrill, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling. His father-in-law throws him a lifeline and appoints him head legal counsel at his hedge fund, Delphic. Disaster is diverted but only momentarily, for shortly before Thanksgiving Morty Reis (one of Delphic’s outside managers) jumps off a bridge. The Darlings are dragged into the glare of the media spotlight as a regulatory investigation is initiated. “Uncle Morty” got out the only way he could. A financial scandal bubbles and then erupts. Not only does Carter’s business world implode, his family also begins to unravel.

Cristina Alger’s first novel offers unique access to the milieu of the mega-rich. Alger’s narrative convinces, largely due to her experience working for a successful firm founded by her father and uncle. Her moneyed, go-getting characters consistently ring true, from the “highly liquid men” who do ninety-hour weeks and believe “Holidays are for the weak” to the exquisite women blessed with connections, beauty and style. All are essentially and predictably shallow, but Alger prevents them from being entirely repellent by having them teeter on the brink of financial ruin and disgrace. Early on, at a charity bash at the Waldorf Astoria, Paul takes in the jewellery and couture, the chauffeurs and limos, and sees through the veneer: “They had to know the end was coming; it was probably already here.” We may not pity them but the maelstrom that threatens to engulf them at least renders them interesting.

Merrill gives us a thumbnail sketch of the key members of her “venerable New England family”: “Her dad was a rock star fund manager, her mom was a socialite, her sister, Lily, was an it-girl, always in the society pages of magazines.” We meet Sol, Carter’s Iago-like lawyer, who schemes and double-crosses to protect his client and his own fortune. On the outside is Duncan, the news editor who has mended his ways after previously being “knee-deep in scotch by 4 p.m.” and who can now maximize that sobriety to sniff out the stink, bring about the Darlings’ downfall and get the biggest scoop of his career. We learn that he earns “less than Carter Darling probably spends on lawn care in East Hampton” but as he has also vowed only to leave Manhattan “in a pine box” we can surmise he isn’t exactly struggling. There is so much wealth and cachet on show in The Darlings, so much high-end product placement and chatter of skiing at Aspen and Gstaad and weekending at Palm Beach, that the rarefied air of these upper echelons can stifle. There is little light and shade. Even time is measured at one point as “Pre-Lehman.”

There are also missteps with the descriptions. Alger relies too heavily on metaphor. We meet Adrian and his brothers, and in the same paragraph are told that “Paul watched Adrian roll off like a tumbleweed”, that “All four were tall and thin as matchsticks”, and that “women instinctively slowed as they passed them, like stars getting sucked into a black hole.” Not only a glut, then, but a mix. Some metaphors are too trite: Snow “would dust the sidewalks like confectioners’ sugar and transform the city’s skyline into a perfect, tiered wedding cake.” Others are complete misfires: “Now she tried to make herself as compact as possible in her subway seat, her purse and a pie competing for prime real estate in her lap.”

However, Alger writes with such verve that it would be churlish to nit-pick. Only the stoniest critic would fault the following: “A moment earlier, Marina had felt effervescent. Then George had come along and uncorked her.’” Alger peppers her prose with a raft of onomatopoeic explosions. Doors make “a hearty thunk”, or “a satisfying thunk”; a lobbed pillow hits its target with a “thwump”. Best of all is the highway undulating beneath Paul’s car – “chunkachunkchunk”. But there is also the narrative pace. Once the scandal leaks, both in public and within the family, we rally round Duncan and his team and are too caught up in the escalating muckraking and backstabbing to criticize any flawed imagery or the overloaded trappings of Alger’s “gilded class”. Duncan must prove that billions have been stolen from investors. Characters shift their allegiances, become classed as “More adversary than friend”. Also, Alger jolts us by revealing that the separate strands of plot she has hitherto laid side by side have all along been intricately connected: he has been sleeping with her, he has been setting up him.

When the book ties up all its loose ends we come to a conclusion that is a little too comforting. For all the characters’ talk of sacrificial lambs, no one suffers who shouldn’t. The bad get their comeuppance; the good rejoice, at least after licking their wounds. More importantly, the bad suffer off-screen. At least Wharton let us view Lily Bart’s fall from grace. The Darlings fuses family drama with financial thriller, but Alger would have benefitted from being more ruthless and killing more of her babies. Perhaps she has one eye on the happy-end movie deal. Should it come to that, we can only pity the casting director. Lily’s husband Adrian is as perfect as his brothers, to the extent that “Marrying one was like landing a Kennedy.” Carter Darling “looks like Cary Grant” and his wife, albeit in the past, “like Mia Farrow at her wedding to Frank Sinatra at the Sands.”

There is one short passage in the novel that deserves mention. In amongst pages of financial skulduggery and the seething brashness of wealth, Alger gives us a quick, quiet, almost unobtrusive sketch. It is a flashback involving Duncan on the terrace of his apartment on the morning of a crisp, blue day in September. The serenity is suddenly shattered by a plane flying into the World Trade Center. The event is colossal, calamitous, but Alger downsizes it to a dimly recalled memory without downplaying the horror. Duncan remembers “standing in his kitchen, pouring the dregs of the French press coffee down the drain and thinking: When I brewed this, the world was still whole.” Similar pockets of reflective prose are buried throughout, sometimes mere sentences: “Bone white snow had collected in the elbows of the tree overnight.” Alger is more than capable of depicting financial meltdown and the dog-eat-dog contingency plans of fallout, but we often look to be lulled by her more ruminative oases of calm.

The Darlings is a vivid and engaging tale of another world coming apart at the seams. Cristina Alger is one to watch. “’I think people love to read about the personal lives of billionaires. Especially if they’re kind of screwed up.’” So runs Duncan’s justification to topple Carter Darling, and maybe also ours for turning to this compelling debut.

Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin. More from this author →