An alternate title for Cristina Alger’s novel, The Darlings could be How the Other Half Lives, but of course, we’d scale down the word ‘half’ to the term ‘top 1%.’ Yes, this novel is a look at how the top 1% of America’s elite class live and the lives they ruin in order to bank the big bucks in their fraudulent Wall Street shenanigans. The Darlings could only have been written post-boom, post-Madoff debacle, and so that gives you more than a hint as to the book’s content. First time author Cristina Alger worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and she is also an attorney. All that behind-the-scenes experience pays off when it comes to setting the backdrop to the story of the Darlings, one of New York’s most prestigious families.
The novel begins the night before Thanksgiving with an event that opens up the possibility of an investigation into the business practices of Carter Darling, the CEO of the Delphic hedge fund, and in a while-Rome-burns fashion in New York high society, his wife, chairperson and press-hungry philanthropist Ines Darling is busy hosting the fantastically ostentatious New Yorkers for Animals Gala at the Waldorf Astoria. Also attending the event is attorney Paul who is married to the eldest Darling daughter, Merrill. Paul reluctantly started working for his father-in-law when the law firm he worked for folded (another story of financial misdoings there). There’s a strange atmosphere at the Gala event–almost a determined defiance of the economic realities:
The mood was slightly more somber than it had been the previous year, but not by much. The women had turned out in couture. Maybe it was last season, but Paul couldn’t tell the difference. Necks still dripped with jewelry, the kind that spent the rest of the year locked away in a safe. Town cars and chauffeured Escalades idled their engines out front. Of course, it was all an illusion. It had to be. This was a finance-heavy crowd in a finance-heavy town. There wasn’t a single person in this room–not a one–who could claim they weren’t worried. They all were, but they were dancing and drinking the night away as they always had. They had to know the end was coming; it was probably already here. It was like the final peaceful moments at the Alamo.
Some of the bigger financial players are noticeably absent thanks to the recent Wall Street debacle and subsequent bankruptcies. When the company Paul worked for folded, he was reluctant to take the job with his father-in-law but saw little alternative. Cutting back on expenses or alternately taking money from Merrill’s trust fund seemed out of the question, so that left employment with Delphic. The Darlings’ other son-in-law, Adrian, married to youngest daughter, Lily also works for Delphic–although his role seems to be professional client smoocher more than anything else. When gross financial thievery at Delphic becomes apparent, Paul must choose between his loyalty to the Darling family or his own skin….
The novel’s plot concerns Paul’s choice, but he’s not the only character here who has to make some extremely difficult decisions. Various characters are introduced into the novel, and before the plot is well advanced, the author lines up her main players like chess pieces. There are 2 SEC employees hot on the trail of the Delphic Fund, and then there’s Carter Darling’s friend and lawyer, Sol who’s ready to conduct damage control and throw a scapegoat or two to the bloodhounds at the SEC. In many ways, the novel unfolds rather like a mystery, and this really is a page turner. The novel’s greatest strength (apart from its pacing) can be found in its lifestyle descriptions. Here’s the Darling family at Thanksgiving spent in their swanky East Hampton home:
The house was, as ever, eerily perfect. The outside had white trimmed gambrels and a porch that caught the breeze just so. The footpaths were constructed out of brick, eaten away at the corners, the colors as varied as the back of a tabby cat and faded by the sun. Inside, the house had all the trappings of a family estate. Ines favored old silver for meals, the kind that was supposed to be passed down, never purchased, and was slightly worn around the handles. A painting of Carter’s grandfather hung on the library wall; across from it was a framed car company’s stock certificate that supposedly bore his signature. Everything that could be personalized or monogrammed or customized was: the crisp white sheets, the soft blue towels, the L.L. Bean canvas bags that were lugged everywhere, from the beach to the golf course to the farmer’s market. Yet there was something manufactured about it, as though Ines had opened the pages of Architectural Digest and said, “Give me this.”
The author fleshes out her characters with details of their personal lives. Lily Darling, for example, who hasn’t truly worked a day in her life, now has a line of pricey designer dog accessories–her “first and only attempt at gainful employment” funded, naturally, by daddy. Meanwhile Adrian, feeling the pressure to economize, “fired their maid, Marta, as part of an overzealous campaign to reduce household expenses. Marta had actually seemed grateful for the release.” And by the time we arrive at that section of the novel, we can understand Marta’s relief at her termination. This brings me to my one complaint about the novel. Unfortunately, the plot also explores the ‘human side’ of all of its characters, so just one example, Ines who is built up as a prize bitch who has taken materialism to the level of fanatical religion has a moment of collapse and humanity. There’s nothing wrong with having a few selfish, greedy villains in a story such as this. Anyone can make mistakes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, and to explore the vulnerability of some of the nastier characters undermined the book’s message. Still that complaint aside The Darlings is a page turner. Given the subject matter, this could be a dry tale, but instead, Alger gives us a gripping plot with Paul in the centre of a maelstrom of divided loyalties.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.