book review: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

The Privileges: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)The backstory: The Privileges was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

The basics: The novel opens with the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morley. The novel, split into four sections, examines the life and marriage of this couple over more than twenty years.

My thoughts: I'm drawn to both stories of marriage and novels that span many years in the lives of characters, and The Privileges had both. When I began reading, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Despite being a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year, there hasn't been much conversation about it, which is a shame because it's a smart, funny, and insightful novel.

Adam and Cynthia are riveting characters. As the novel opens with their wedding, they're not sure why they're getting married right out of college (they're so young), but they don't doubt each other or their relationship:
"She's not disappointed. Sex is no novelty; being exhausted together, being each other's safe place--that's what tells you you've found what everybody's always whining about searching for."
To my cynical eyes, it was either foolishly naive or utterly romantic (and perhaps both.) Ultimately, I think it was both, but aren't we all guilty of being foolishly romantic to some extent if we believe not only in another person but in a lifetime commitment to that person?

There's a dynamism to their marriage I was fascinated by. As the title indicates, Adam and Cynthia are (increasingly) privileged. Having a glimpse inside a marriage of wealthy people was somehow even more interesting. When I read (or watch movies or television), I often ponder what my marriage would look like in the given situation. Ultimately, I was moved by their commitment to one another and the steadfastness of their marriage. In their privileged life, they were aberrations. They married young and had children immediately. The parents of their children's friends were often twenty years older. In the modern age of waiting to marry and have children, Adam and Cynthia find themselves almost between generations.

Despite my emphasis of their marriage, this novel is the story of Adam and Cynthia as individuals too. They have a remarkable confidence, and it extends to their marriage. They also maintain an intriguing grip on reality: "His ignorance, he sometimes felt, was boundless." Instead of their honesty about themselves defeating them; it helps them grow. Honesty can make characters less likable, but I adored it in these two:
"He just had this strange, campy affection for people and places that tried hard to sell themselves but couldn't get it right."
Despite everything, it was believable and likable, and so were they. Don't we all seek truth, humor and wisdom from the books we read and the people we love? Jonathan Dee manages to infuse all three into seemingly simple sentences throughout the novel: "People had weird ideas about money. Like not spending it was condescending somehow." At times I wondered if the characters and their dialogue was too smart to be real. I'll forgive it if it is of course, because it's so good, and I'm a devotee of Gossip Girl for many of the same reasons.Yes, the thought did occur to me that The Privileges could be the novel Dan Humphrey writes about the Upper East Side, but only if he waited at least ten years.

Favorite passage: "Life has given you the gift of possibility, and the real arrogance is wasting it so that you can condescend to everyone else by calling them authentic."

The verdict: The Privileges is smart, funny, romantic, insightful and incredibly moving; it deserves a bigger readership (and a film version.) In short, I loved it.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2010
Source: I borrowed it from the library (largely because the Kindle version is $2 more than the paperback)

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  1. The interesting thing about The Privileges is that despite the preliminary hype it received, it never quite caught on. I suppose too many readers felt (as I did) that the book was trying very hard to fill a niche, but not do much more than that. In fact, I think this is one of the first reviews I've encountered of it. Seems like it might be a good book (and I can see why it might qualify as a Pulitzer finalist, even if the aspect of American life it describes is, well, privileged).

  2. I haven't heard anything about this novel! Which is a shame because it sounds great -- reminds me a bit of the smart, idealistic couples I see in Boston -- not blueblood Brahmins exactly but certainly comfortable -- and I'm always curious about their lives.

  3. I love your review of this. I adore books like this but prior to your review, I haven't been too excited to get to this one. Now though, I am anxious to do so.

  4. I haven't heard about this one, but you've piqued my interest. I got married & had kids young (to the dismay of some of my family) and we typically find ourselves "between generations" as you that aspect of the story makes me curious. I'm glad you put this book on my radar.

  5. Books on marriage always intrigue me. This sounds good!

  6. This one does sound very goo. Not only do I like the synopsis, but the quotes that you peppered throughout your review really caught my attention. It sounds like this book and I would get on perfectly, and I am going to have to see if I can grab it. It does seem as though it's a hidden little gem, and I will have to let you know what I think about it after I have finished it. Fantastic review. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Great review - and like others, this is one I haven't heard much about. (One of the main reasons I love book bloggers so very much!) Since we have similar tastes, I'm going to look for this one.

  8. I'll have to add this to my list... I always thought it looked good but I hadn't heard much about it! I love books about marriage/relationships too.

  9. I remember hearing about this novel when it was first published and I took note of it then so I am glad to hear you liked it. I will definitely read it soon!


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