Audiobook Review: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

Occupy. Occupy. Occupy. Otherwise understood as a case of them vs. us. The top 1% vs. the 99%. The elite vs. the rest of us. The rich vs. the poor. Hell, the rich vs. the middle class, the upper middle class, and even the upper-upper middle class. These are the headlines that dominate our newscasts, our blogs, our magazines, our newspapers. However you feel about the protests themselves, or the motivations behind them, the undeniable fact that threads through every debate around the Occupiers is the fact that the richest among us are getting richer. And richer. And still yet richer.

I look at the incomes of the top 1% - the very same incomes that have risen 275% since 1975 - and wonder how on earth one person, or even one family, could spend so much money in a lifetime. The Kardashian wedding comes to mind: a showcase in absurd overspending. But don't you wonder? What is it like to live with no concept of excess? With no concern for overspending? With no fear of debt, or loss, or sacrifice? How does privilege change a person? For better? For worse? And if the 99% ask these questions of the 1%, what questions do the 1% ask of the 99%?

These are the kinds of questions addressed by Jonathan Dee's The Privileges. Although the story is in no way associated with the Occupy movements, the 1%, or any other current events, it proved a timely selection in a world of economic headline. 

The Privileges is an aptly-named novel about a wealthy family in Manhattan. Adam and Cynthia Morey are a pure exemplification of the American Dream. Married at 22, fresh out of college, they return from their honeymoon expecting their first child. Adam works for a hedge fund, Cynthia a fashion magazine. Adam gets a raise. Cynthia stops working to raise children. They settle into modest apartment in Manhattan, then move to a larger one when their children are too old to share a bedroom. Adam deals in insider trading, Cynthia questions her purpose in life. They move to a townhouse. Adam gets a 6-figure bonus, Cynthia gets involved in charities. The kids go to prep school, experiment with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and spend their parents' money.

Throughout it all, Adam and Cynthia remain fiercely loyal to one another, basing every action on its ability to make the other, or their family, happier than in the past. And page by page, we watch each member of the family, and even the family as a whole, struggle to define what life is all about if it is not about overcoming challenges - for in truth, they really don't have challenges to overcome in their little bubble of a world. Is it about leaving a mark on the world? Helping others? Making more money? Finding Art? And if they are such a wonderfully perfect family, led by a couple so wildly in love, why do they seem so lonely?

The prose throughout Dee's novel is stark but emotional, captured perfectly by David Aaron Baker's narration in the audio version. Though several reviews have complained of the static nature of the storyline, or the flatness of the characters, and these complaints are not entirely unfounded, I found that this bare-bones approach to storytelling actually complimented Dee's novel. Dee is not out to judge his characters, or even make you like them. He's just telling you about them, in all their selfish, wealthy glory. The story is, in fact, really not much of a story at all, moving to no specific culmination or conclusion, but instead a profile of a family, flawed and perhaps unlikeable, but ultimately understandable.

The Privileges proves to be a treatise on how wealth and greed and power and love and loyalty and determination can shape not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. It is melancholy, bitter, but ultimately not depressing. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to leave a mark on the world, how to keep from disappearing, how to make an impact.

Like Gossip Girl, the Kardashian wedding, and the 1% headlines, The Privileges will prove captivating to anyone slightly obsessed with the world of the wealthy (and don't deny it, you know you're intrigued). Though the characters here may not be likeable or relatable, the novel itself gripping and insightful, and, given the backdrop of Occupy protests, jobs acts, and economic reform, incredibly timely.

As a final thought: Those turned off by the episodic nature of the plot should at least invest in the first chapter (focusing solely on Adam and Cynthia's wedding), which could easily stand alone as a short story.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
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Note: Many thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for (as always) keeping an excellent stock of audiobooks on hand for my browsing pleasure. You guys rock.

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