The Darlings by Cristina Alger

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.

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21 Comments

Filed under Alger Cristina, Fiction

21 responses to “The Darlings by Cristina Alger

  1. You answered my one question I had while reading this post in your last sentence. I was worried it would be too dry. This certainly sounds like a book I would like to read. I see what you mean by undermining the message but maybe if she hadn’t included some of those moments it would have been too clichéd. That’s another thing I was wondering. Isn’t it a bit clichéd?

  2. My main objection to the film Wall Street was that with all that was really going on it kind of missed the point, by making Gekko an outright crook.

    I find myself wondering if this does something similar. People in finance are often surprisingly insulated from the realities of other people’s lives. It’s often not that they gloatingly crush the “little people”, but that they utterly misestimate what average earnings actually are or what opportunities people from different backgrounds may have.

    My concern with this is it sounds like it doesn’t address those kinds of subtleties. If you make everyone villains that can be fun, but it’s not really true. Nothing’s ever quite that simple. I guess I’m asking the same question as Caroline, is it perhaps a bit clichéd?

  3. Caroline & Max: There are many layers of people in the book, so you don’t just see the Darling family but also the in-laws, a magazine executive, his employee, SEC employees, office employees etc. I didn’t find it clichéd as a great deal of the focus is on how each of the characters from all walks of life are involved in the massive fallout that is about to happen. The book reminds me of the Madoff case, and so there are villains not just people who made mistakes–there are some mistakes made along the way too, however.

    My biggest problem with the book is how the ‘human’ side of some of the characters is shown. For example, Ines comes off as a horrible person-totally motivated by money and status, very cold and inflexible. Then there’s a scene where she breaks down and by that point it seems out of character. I couldn’t see that happening. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but while I can see it’s possible that she COULD break down, I didn’t see it happening in the way it did. Same thing with Carter Darling and his lawyer. They each have this heartfelt moment which doesn’t quite work. .

  4. Though I don’t work in that kind of finance, I shy away from novels that remind me of work. This is also why I haven’t read The Bonfire of Vanities.

    How does it compare to Brightness Falls by McInerney?

  5. The Way We Live Now, by Trollope, did a nice job on this Victorian-Madoff business in 1855. I heard of it when the NYTimes interviewed that noir-anti-establishment-turned-conservative-chauvinist-Jew author, David Mamet about the market meltdown. At least he knows good books.

    As for Stone’s Wall Street – he makes melodramas.

    I can’t get too interested in individuals involved in all this stuff – suffice to say that they get detached from reality, have a variety of backgrounds, characters, ethical standards, and motives. It’s the system in aggregate that’s important, and that’s what is usually missed. Even in so spectacular an individual case as Bernie Madoff the real question is, How did the SEC let him get away with it?

    Kurt Vonnegut summed it up well in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. There is a money stream, and people fight like hell to get their straw into it, the bigger the better. Then they pass on their place to their children. Wouldn’t you?

    Oh well, smash the system…

    • There’s a spectacular television film version of The Way We Live Now.

      The problem with Vonnegut’s notion is that it’s narrowed to commodity envy (ie I want what you have) and that isn’t true for all of us. True for a great proportion of the population but not all. Have you seen The Edukators?

      And the book goes into the story of why the SEC turned a blind eye for these fictional characters.

  6. … narrowed to commodity envy

    No, no, no…It’s all about capital.

    • perhaps we are talking about the same thing but from different directions. Let me put it another way: when some people talk about revolution or social change, they don’t necessarily want to take the stuff FOR THEMSELVES but want to see redistribution of wealth.

      I wouldn’t want to be fantastically wealthy at the expense of others.

      • Well, I agree with that. I’m just not clear on why you thing Vonnegut was expressing a different idea.

        Anyway, I don’t read him for his deep political analysis…

        • I was just talking to someone who’d been to a boat show and we were trying to puzzle out how people can afford these things. We got to talking about yachts and faux yachts which led to an entire train of thought about how people mimic the truly wealthy through commodities.

          I’m still mulling over Balzac’s observations on French society post revolution.

          • Are you familiar with Thorstein Veblen?
            What is a faux yacht? A fancy canoe?
            How do people afford these things? “People” don’t. The 0.1% and the 0.01% does. Not many of them, but out of 300 million, a good market, and there’s money to be made off them, and off of us who love to hear about them.
            As for the issue of mimicry, the idea that the ‘middling’ classes mimic “their betters,” is important in the study of the history of consumerism, and it has been a major explanation for the rise of the consumer society. One fascinating study I read recently – The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Consumer Society – challenges this.

            • The Theory of the Leisure Class is FREE for the Kindle, and yes I have a copy (back to that cheap thing again).

              A faux yacht is just my term for a boat that is obviously trying to mimic something more expensive. Yes I’m getting to that mimicry thing. I remember when the fad suddenly became stainless steel appliances and the local shops were loaded with cheap versions with a seemingly stainless steel veneer. Now it seems to be outside kitchens with huge pizza ovens. What the hell someone wants two kitchens for (one in, one out) is beyond me.

              • The taste for huge, industrial-strength ranges in residential kitches baffles me, except as a status marker – “See! I have arrived!” I’m told by people who have them that they break frequently, and require lots of expensive service.

  7. The Bonfire of the Vanities is pretty exceptional. Worth reading.

    The mimicry issue is interesting. Stuff does seem to trickle down (well, except wealth of course, that doesn’t seem to), and as it does so is abandoned by those further up the wealth chain. Not everything though, in the UK for example the very posh will often wear rather tatty clothes with visible holes and damage, the middle classes very rarely. The upper class of course don’t need to show that they are not poor, and so can afford to look poor. The middle classes lack that luxury. If their clothes have holes, they bought them with the holes pre-made.

    • I always come back to a great quote from Johnson:

      “Poverty has, in very large cities, very different appearances: it is often concealed in splendour, and often in extravagance. It is the care of a very great part of mankind to conceal their indigence from the rest: they support themselves by temporary expedients, every day is lost in contriving for the morrow.”

      Haven’t read Bonfire of the Vanities.

  8. Guy – just a note to apologise for my sudden departure from the book blogging scene.

    I plan to relaunch my site in due course focusing on just a few favourite authors – based on some of my more indepth reviews.

    I’ll keep dropping in to see what you’re up to here.

    best, Tom

    • I saw your post on your blog, Tom. Well life has its phases and you have to act accordingly. I hope you return soon just for the authors you really want to talk about as I’ve got some good tips from you, and I selfishly want those to continue.

  9. leroyhunter

    Interesting discussion. The book iteslf reminds me of The Privilges, but that may just be a superficial thing as they’re both in the “New York Super-Rich Credit Crunch” sub-genre.

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