Saturday, December 29, 2012

book review: The Darlings by Cristina Alger

The basics: The Darlings, Cristina Alger's debut novel, opens with an unnamed man driving his Astin Martin to a bridge and jumping to his death. The action quickly shifts back to the titular Darling family: patriach and finance guru Carter Darling, his Portugese wife Ines. The Darlings have two daughters, Merrill, a lawyer married to Paul, a lawyer who recently became legal counsel at Carter's firm; and Lily, married to Adrian, who works in client relations at Carter's firm. As New York City is just feeling the beginning of the financial crisis, this family finds itself at the epicenter of it.

My thoughts: Going into this novel, I knew two things: Jenny loved it and Bravo bought it and is creating a scripted series around it. I expected a soapy and fun tale of a Ponzi scheme gone wrong. I got that, but I was surprised how good Alger's writing was and how funny and astute her descriptions and observations were:
"He dressed as he did--Nantucket reds and bow ties and hunting jackets--without irony. He played lacrosse and drank his way through college, never doubting that a spot in the Morgan Stanley Investment Banking program would be available to him upon graduation (it was), and after that, a job at his wife's father's hedge fund."
During the first fifty pages, I was gleefully laughing at Alger's descriptions of these upper crusters:
"There's practically no floral budget," Ines declared when she had been named committee chairwoman. "We'll have to get creative. Opulence is out, anyway." She wasn't lamenting; Ines simply stated unpleasant facts with a sort of stoic fortitude."
Alger gets this world: she's a lawyer, a former analyst, and her father is a Wall Street financier, yet this novel has a delightful outsider feel because the reader sees this world through the eyes of Paul. He lives in this world, and his marriage to Merrill is a delightfully authentic love story, but he's from North Carolina and observes things as an outsider in many ways. Interestingly, so does Merrill. Unlike her sister Lily, who was never the smart one, Merrill enjoys her demanding job and has the ability (and braveness) to question the assumptions of the life in which she was raised.

As much as I laughed at the station of the rich in this novel, it was funny because Alger's humor is an intelligent and thoughtful one:
"The Darlings of new York." Ines loved to reference "the article" in casual conversation, and she spoke of Duncan Sander as though they were old friends. In truth, it wasn't really an article, but more of a blurb attached to a glossy photograph of Ines and Lily, inexplicably attired in white cocktail dresses, frolicking on the front lawn with Bacall, the family Weimaraner."
I'm not particularly drawn to financial thrillers, and while this novel qualifies, it is very much a character-based novel. There aren't easy answers or obvious bad people. Each character is well-crafted, complex, and driven by motivations that the reader can understand. Alger makes the complex world of financial accounting simple and fascinating.

Favorite passage: "Manhattan was a Darwinian environment: only the strongest survived. The weak, the nice, the naive, the ones who smiled at passersby on the sidewalk, all got weeded out. They would come to New York for a few years after college, rent shoebox apartments in Hell's Kitchen or Murray Hill, work at a bank or wait tables or audition for bit parts in off-off-Broadway productions. They would meet other twenty-somethings over after-work drinks at soulless bars in midtown; get laid; get their hearts broken. They would feel themselves becoming impatient, jaded, cynical, rude anxious, neurotic. They would give up. They would opt out. They would scurry back to their hometowns or to the suburbs or secondary cities like Boston or D.C. or Atlanta, before they had had a chance to breed."

The verdict: The Darlings is a delightful modern novel about life, love, loyalty and taking chances. Alger grounds her characters in the financial crisis and a Ponzi scheme, but ultimately this novel is a character-driven page-turner about how and why we make choices in difficult situations.

Rating: 5 out of 5 
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: February 16, 2012 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Darlings from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. Yay! I'm so glad you liked this!! It's funny because I just posted my best of list for fiction today and I included this book so I had been thinking about this one a lot lately. I didn't know Bravo was making a series out of it... I need to look out for that.

    1. Jenny, I think it would make a great show, but the key will be casting. These people have to be likable (or at least relatable) despite their privilege.

  2. A lot of people are reading this book right now. It doesn't sound like my cup of tea but everyone is commenting on how good the writing is.

    1. Ti, I passed on it last year when it came out in hardcover, but all the buzz made me pick it up, and I really enjoyed it!

  3. I've seen this one around but never really considered this to be for me. I guess I was also expecting it to be a bit soapy. So I'm glad that you recommend it!

    1. Aths, it is a little soapy, I suppose, but there is enough depth (and literary writing), that it's the best of both worlds: a fascinating, quick, well-written read.


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