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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sociopathy, Narcissism and Wallstreet
Post-Madoff, post-TARP bailout, post-those scandalous bonuses, you, like many others, may have come to the conclusion that stratospheric success on WallStreet isn't exactly the product of genius, acumen, work ethic or determination as much as the product of narcissism and sociopathy. And according to this novel, you'd be right.

So when a handsome, charming...
Published on February 7, 2010 by kamc

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44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Embrace of Excess
Adam and Cynthia Morey are rich. Not just rich, but obscenely rich. We meet them at their lavish wedding, two starry-eyed children pretending to be adults, right at the cusp of all things good. And we follow them as they quickly become parents to April and Jonah and begin to accumulate more and more and more...stepping over the dark side to insider trading and unmarked...
Published on November 30, 2009 by Jill I. Shtulman


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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sociopathy, Narcissism and Wallstreet, February 7, 2010
Post-Madoff, post-TARP bailout, post-those scandalous bonuses, you, like many others, may have come to the conclusion that stratospheric success on WallStreet isn't exactly the product of genius, acumen, work ethic or determination as much as the product of narcissism and sociopathy. And according to this novel, you'd be right.

So when a handsome, charming sociopath meets a beautiful, proud narcissist in college, first comes love, then comes marriage... Wallstreet is destiny.

Adam has no regrets, he could not care less about yesterday and he has nothing resembling emotional bonds outside of his own nuclear family and nothing but his wife really matters as she satisfies any need for the justification of his ruthless ambition. Cynthia on the other hand, cares little for those beyond her own nuclear family unless they gratify her self-image in some way. Both are not just unsentimental. They are asentimental. She briefly has small a crisis of self-faith about her performance as a top notch mom over a minor incident which sets off a rousing round of justification for Adam's insider trading. Insider trading and illegal offshoring of ill-gotten funds is therefore noble because it's for the family cause, but infidelity would be an unspeakable transgression in this relationship.

I'm not sure what purpose the kids serve to further this vignette unless it's because everyone has them, maybe even especially narcissists and sociopaths. And the kids do serve up a couple of different perspectives on what a casual rather causal relationship with such wealth breeds and Dee invests a lot of time in them plot-wise. April, the extrovert, compensates for her sense of cultural rootlessness resulting from her parents' disregard for extra-family attachment and asentimentality ultimately by cultivating both the careless arrogance of her mother and the same wreckless lack of empathy for those outside the family as her father. Jonah, the introvert, compensates for a childhood and adolescence void of personal struggle and subsequent meaningful achievement by setting himself on a quest for a unicorn called authenticity.

Best passage from the book for me was, "The whole idea of forgiveness presumed you were locked in the past and trying to let yourself out. She wasn't going to drag him back in that direction, to make him explain why he had lived as he had lived. That wasn't who they were. Each moment bore only the next one and if you were going to be successful in this life, that was the plane on which you had to live. If you started going on your knees to the past, demanding something from it, you were dead. She asked nothing from it."

The rich aren't like you and I. Because, above all else, they have never believed they are like everyone else even on the most fundamental human level, even before they became wealthy. And that's what Dee's The Privileges is at its core.
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44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Embrace of Excess, November 30, 2009
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Adam and Cynthia Morey are rich. Not just rich, but obscenely rich. We meet them at their lavish wedding, two starry-eyed children pretending to be adults, right at the cusp of all things good. And we follow them as they quickly become parents to April and Jonah and begin to accumulate more and more and more...stepping over the dark side to insider trading and unmarked overseas bank accounts.

There has been much written today about the spoiled, irresponsible, and unethical affluent -- their values, their lifestyle, their implosions. Characters don't necessarily have to be "likable" to be interesting; for example, Tom Wolfe in Bonfires of the Vanities, Caitlin Macy in Spoiled, and Claire Messud in The Emperor's Children create solid narratives based on the most wealthy Americans. For the first half of this book, it appeared to me that Jonathan Dee would rise to this strata.

Indeed, at the beginning, Mr. Dee carefully crafts a narrative of Adam and Cynthia, and leads the reader to the point of their temptation -- where they view Adam's mentor's extravagant "country" house. But then, inconceivably, the threads begin unraveling and the story begins falling apart.

The focus of the book shifts to the children -- April and Jonah -- who are nowhere as interesting as their parents (who also begin to drift into the landscape of cliches). Dare I say they are actually boring? They are the children of privilege and their lives become insular and one-dimensional -- April's flirtation with physical and substance abuse danger, Jonah's yearning for something "real". They drift from one experience to the other, always narcissists without the in-depth back story to make them appealing to the reader.

At one point, Mr. Dee writes, "It wasn't about being rich per se. It was about living a big life, a life that was larger than life. Money was just the instrument." Had he pursued that theme, this would have been a far more fascinating read. As it is, the narrative becomes smaller than life with little new to impart.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When a $250,000 Bonus isn't Enough........., December 9, 2009
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This is an interesting novel, reminding me of F. Scott Fitzgerald who portrayed the affluent and John Updike who revealed inner lives of Americans who respond to personal turmoil and obligations. But Jonathan Dee moves beyond typical with Adam and Cynthia who prove throughout the book they are a superbly well-matched couple. They view themselves as invincible and only need each other.

They marry young, the story opens with their wedding, and they both exude rare confidence. Cynthia has meager feelings for anyone except Adam and her elusive father. Adam appears to have stepped out of his blue collar family and has found Cynthia, a true partner to help him triumph.

What they both lack in conscience is made up in their aspirations for wealth and power. Adam is the star at a small investment firm where he does well every year earning large salaries and larger bonuses. But it is not enough for him. He steps out of the legitimate realm, hooks up with a small time crook and sets up a separate operation which boosts his income making him a rich man, who does not get caught. His timing is perfect; he shuts down this venture and later starts a hedge fund where investors beg him for inclusion, reminiscent of Bernie Madoff. They have two children, the daughter is the stereotypical spoiled brat who can do anything and her parents will bail her out no matter what. The son has more depth and some despair. Dee's characterizations of this family are rich with significant milestones in their lives.

This could have been a trite story of how the rich live and it's never enough, but Dee's writing is excellent and I know people like Adam and Cynthia. They are real to me. Nothing dreadful happens to them, they in truth don't care about anyone. Adam believes one should leave a mark in this world or it's as if you never were here. I believed Adam's obsession with his success, Cynthia's obsession with his success and their strong belief they did no wrong. Everyone dances to their wishes and they live happily ever after in their privileged world.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What's the point?, March 28, 2010
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I kept reading and reading, believing that soon the "real story" would begin. Instead, it seems like one long introduction to characters who are pretty flat, whose lives are not all that interesting, and who don't really grow all that much. The most interesting character turns out to be Adam, the protagonist, but that's really just because the story is about him and his life.

SPOILER ALERT:

This book could be summed up in 2 sentences: Formerly middle-class guy makes a ton of money (billions?) through insider trading, starts a foundation to absolve himself from unexpressed guilt, and is surrounded by 2 bratty children and 1 adoring wife. The end.

All the things you think might happen to make these people rethink their lives don't actually ever happen: Adam never gets caught insider trading, the kids never end up on skid row, even though one is a drug addict and the other one is a hopeless emo, the wife never berates him for working so hard, the husband never cheats on his wife... in short, there's just no "there" there. No plot, no twists, no real character development. It's my first Jonathan Dee read: I bought it after reading a glowing review in the NYT. I guess my taste is just off.
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32 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great writing fails to make up for shallow story & 1-D characters, January 11, 2010
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This book delves into the lives of a family of rich white New Yorkers, starting from the beginning of their marriage and continuing twenty years as they get even richer. Jonathan Dee is an extraordinary writer, but his book is flawed for two insurmountable reasons: his writing never delves deeply enough for the reader to really connect to or understand his characters, and the people he's chosen to write about are not the types that I think most people want to read about at the present time. His timing is unfortunate. In this post-Madoff and Wall Street bank scandals era, how can an average person sympathize with a man whose fortune is built on stock fraud and cheating, law-breaking and lies? Or a woman who has barely worked a day in her life (save some obligatory time at a magazine, which seems to be the default job for any lazy author writing about a stylish woman who lives in Manhattan) and who is so sheltered that her biggest tragedy in life is losing her kids for one hour on the subway? Or a daughter who grows up into some Paris Hilton-lite party girl? Dee's writing is the only thing that propelled me along, because just as I was about to give up in disgust with the mundane antics of these shallow, unnecessary people, he'd throw another passage at me that honestly made me stop and go, "Wow." If only his storytelling skills were as good as his writing skills. He's given us two people who are supposed to have this epic love, but we never SEE that love between them, we only hear other people talk about it. Most of the narrative is spent with each character separately, and he dives in and out of it at such abrupt intervals, giving us a handful of scenes that are actually life-altering, character-shaping moments for these people, but most of which are just banal, everyday events. He's also not very current with his references; one character mentions a party where the rich couple hired Wyclef Jean as the entertainment, as if that is really something special.

In the end however, even Dee's considerable writing skills could not keep me interested in this story. It took me months to finally finish it, because I had to literally force myself to get through the final pages. I would have just left it unfinished, but when I first started reading it, I predicted that the book would come to an abrupt end right in the middle of the story, and I wanted to see if I was right. I was. It ends exactly like that, but not before (SPOILER ALERT!!) dragging the reader through the drawn-out death of a beyond minor character whose name we don't even learn until he's on his deathbed. So why exactly would we care about him?

Unfortunately, that is a question that cannot be answered for ANY of this book's characters. Both of my stars are for Dee's prose, which truly is a gift. I really hope that this talented man finds a story and a subject more worthy of his writing skills the next time he attempts a novel.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Deeply superficial, December 15, 2009
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There was very little in this book to scoop me up or draw me in. I thought it was rather banal and ultimately resided in the upper end of the guppy pool. Deeply superficial. It was billed as DeLillo-esque, which is why I wanted to read it. It tanked.

When writing about obscenely rich navel-gazers, it helps to be fresh and original. I enjoy essentially unlikable characters in literature--they are often savagely solipsistic and subversive. Tom Wolfe, Martin Amis and Zoe Heller create self-regarding characters with a literary elan. It was the pasty cardboard cutouts that irked me; Adam and Cynthia were conspicuously thin and stale. Within the text, Dee advances his theories of manufactured art ruining culture in this day and age, but he didn't really give us something fresh-out-of-the-wrapper, either. Maybe he was being cheeky, but it fell flat to me.

The second part of the novel, once Cynthia and Adam have been established as scheming masters of the universe, highlights their children, Jonas and April. April doesn't do one unexpected thing or have two original thoughts. Jonas tugged at me for a while with his ambivalence and innocent pretense. His lofty cynicism and earnest ideology had a guileless streak, which gave him some dimension. But, almost abruptly, he unraveled into stream of consciousness nothingness.

There was a hospice scene toward the end that was authentic and effective. I know this from working as a hospice nurse for many years. The author captured the helpless fury and the meek awkwardness. The saliva in my throat burned and I was there with the characters. Dee either did his research or experienced this personally. However, the ending (following the hospice scene) was grandiose and melodramatic. It rattled hysterically and left a stream of synthetic fibers everywhere.
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27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This is a case of the Nouveau Riche at their most utterly boring., December 29, 2009
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The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

We meet the protagonists at their very pretentious wedding. Meet Adam and Cynthia Morey, a young and supposedly charming couple who you can plainly see belong to the "I Want It Now and I Don't Care How I Get it"generation. I'm not quite sure how they became the narcissistic, greedy, supremely uncaring people that they are portrayed as because their back-rounds seemed solidly middle class to me. The chapters are very. very long and are meant to point out that a rather long period of time passed. Unfortunately for me that wasn't a very good ploy since time dragged so slowly through this book that the only way you could figure out that a chunk of time had even passed was that their two children grew and had a few milestones, like the daughter becoming a slutty "Mean Girl" and the mother being so proud of it---like drug dependence and sheer stupidity.

Early on in the book Adam gets a wonderful job with a well established ventures/hedge fund company and finds that even though he gets $250,000 dollar bonuses it's just not enough. So he starts a little side business in ventures and insider trading (think of the famous quote from the 80's movie Wall Street - when Gordon Gekko claims that- "Greed is Good!") and turns into an uncaring slime ball. There is nothing to his character that makes me empathize with him, no matter what the reviews at Publishers Weekly says. He is a thief who I had wished had done some jail time. But let's not forget the Morey's lead a rather charmed life. Their problems are laughably minimal, and the writer chooses not to give them anything of interest to do or to have happen to them. Boring.

The "dramatic" conclusion or climax is shown through both children (although at their ages they are most certainly NOT children any longer) taking risks with their lives, Adam getting scared and stopping his little side business and the Morey's turn to giving their money away. *snort*

This book is totally laughable, vastly unbelievable and not very entertaining, the characters are written in a way that you can't even work up a good jealous feeling about their privilege, or take the moral high ground that they are going to get what they deserve...because they never do and you can't even muster up one iota of empathy for them. This is a case of the Nouveau Riche at their most utterly boring.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life Among the Super Rich, December 5, 2009
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This book was conceived before the economy crashed and burned, I believe. However, it is entirely believable, as it involves a certain class of people, of the greed-is-good school of thought. The writing is good. The story opens with the Great American 5-figure wedding circa maybe 1990, between Cynthia and Adam. If you have ever attended one of these or watched We Go Bridal night on the WE channel, you'll easily identify. While there are some family conflicts, both families fade into the background as the couple move to New York, have two children, and Adam starts making real money on Wall Street. Adam begins taking on more risk and eventually sets up an insider trading ring, stashing millions in offshore locations and presumably paying no taxes on it. He's obviously risking going to prison, and keeps everything from his family. When he gets locked into an impossible situation and loses his job, he confesses to Cynthia. One of Adam's partners accuses him of having no conscience, and it often seems like neither he nor his wife has any. Meanwhile, their daughter April is making a mess of her life and comes close to a real tragedy. Does this family learn anything? Only the ending will tell.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There's no free lunch, August 15, 2011
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This review is from: The Privileges: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) (Paperback)
I had read some of the reviews of this book, before deciding to read it. I was left with a strong negative impression of the main characters--which, in the two days it took me to finish reading the novel, I had trouble pinpointing. I know people like the Moreys, the husband and wife Adam and Cynthia. They are people whose lack of sentimentality and refusal to dwell in uncomfortable memories of disempowerment and loss are not so much a concentrated effort that is a result of deep reflection, but a practical, get-on-with-it attitude to life that is greatly effective in securing the kind of life most wish to have. It is interesting that people would rather forgive adulterous men who do 'good' in public, yet are harsh on Adam Morey, whose sole focus in life is to be the best husband and father he can be to his much-cherished wife and children by providing limitless possibilities for them.

Jonathan Dee's Moreys represent the young, brash, no-looking-back, guilt-free America, whose vision of the future and its secure place in it has no relation with illusions or prayers or fate, but the simple fact of acting on its ideals and making it a reality today. As we should all be able to see by now, that modus operandi no doubt has affected everyone in its dust, but it doesn't reduce the purity of its intention; a particularly American creed.

If Adam Morey is an alcoholic instead of a dedicated athlete, if he is an abusive instead of a devoted husband, if he comes home with no 'bacon' instead of having more than anticipated and acted on his wife's needs and his family's, I wonder if my fellow reviewers would be more forgiving, and write things about him with descriptions like 'human', or 'deep and true' or, 'honest'? Have we become a society that is comfortable in sidling up with unforgivable weaknesses than what can be interpreted as strength of character? What kind of a society throws stones at those minding their own business living autonomous, self-sufficient, successful lives, when that exact society built the particular infrastructure for the realization of that particular life trajectory?

Yes, the Moreys exclude family members outside of their own nucleus -- the reminders of their disempowered past-lives. Dee doesn't venture to describe how both Cynthia and Adam come to this choice, apart from illustrating the alienating gap between their children and the children's grandparents that are jarring for both parties. Again, what kind of compromises is one willing to make for one's dreams? For the Moreys, in order to seize the big living they sought for themselves, they made the innate choice to leave behind all that would not sync with that vision. Adam is not guilty of being a 'sociopath'-- if the USA can be called a sociopath for wanting to spread democracy with such naïveté as, similarly, the Pile character believed he was doing in Graham Greene's The Quiet American--he just believed in the American Dream. His idea of being a righteous man is to do good by his family and staying loyal to that.

Dee's message is one that is deeply paradoxical and delivered in a deceptively economical manner. Are we guilty of being true to our dreams that does not seemingly hurt anyone and is for the good of the people we have vowed to take care of for the rest of our lives? As Candide had advised: cultivate our own garden; mind our own business, do our best to provide for those we care for, be true to them. Adam and Cynthia are devoted to each other their whole married lives, and have the kind of marriage all of us wish for: one that is filled with faith and support, true love and resilience, a lack of doubts and misgivings. Would we rather punish these characters for their tunnel vision, or those whose grasp of the big picture give license to their disloyalties towards those who trust them? How many 'humanitarian' individuals are ruthlessly indifferent to the emotional well-fare and general well-being of those closest to them?

The Moreys represent the naïve, seemingly carefree, beautiful and bold America. Historical baggage is one they've left at the altar; as in the novel, the beginning of the Moreys' lives start at their wedding very early in their lives. At the end of the novel, Dee portrays moments in which Adam and Cynthia respectively experience uncharacteristic self-reflection, triggered by loss and alienation. Both of them chuck their probing thoughts out the window before truly giving any time for the thoughts to take hold in their vigilantly-guarded sentiments. In this rejection of exploring possible (other) meanings of their lives, Dee depicts that the lives of the privileged are not as free from burden as we'd like to project in our envy or need to believe that they are different to 'us', or 'inhuman'. The burden of the success that the Moreys achieve, is the baggage of deciding not to carry any. Everything demands a compromise, and in America, one is free to make the compromises one chooses to live with.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Shallow characters and shallow wrting for a thin plot...., September 9, 2011
By 
Talia Carner "Novelist" (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Privileges: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) (Paperback)
I am not in the habit of trashing novels. If I find a work to be less than compelling, I simply do not continue reading. However, this was an assignment for a book group, which forced me to read to the end. I was particularly intrigued since I had noticed the special place the NYT had given this novel in the annals of last year's literary as a "tour de force"--as did some other media outlets.

Therefore, without the risk of destroying Mr. Dee's career, I am taking the liberty to be frank about my disappointment in our cultural beacons that award the best books. Had The Privileges remained somewhat obscured, I would have kept my silence....

I hardly managed to swallow the "telling" throughout the novel, that had very little "showing." Time and again the author was instructing the reader what to think, how to view the characters and how to understand their actions. Nevertheless, even as he kept telling me what's what, I failed to grasp their motivations. It is not just that Dee wanted to show them as living shallow lives and therefore made them shallow. He wanted me to think that there was depth to their shallow lives, a mirror of a mirror to emptiness that was actually filled with meaning.

What astonished me was that The New Yorker wrote "There is a minimum of authorial omniscience," while I read nothing but authorial voice page after page.... Did I read a different book?

It didn't even seem that Dee knew anything about trading--outside or inside--to write about it. In fact, it didn't seem that he knew the lives of the privileged nearly as well as Tom Wolfe when he wrote "Bonfire of the Vanities." Dee's connection to the material seemed to be as superficial as his cut-out cardboard characters.

Some character development in literature is meant to create a person that we abhore. (e.g., Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita.) A good author makes us want to stay with that negative person in spite of us. Not so in the case of Adam and Cynthia.

The only character with some depth was the son, and he came to life on the page more fully toward the end, just as his mother was moving into an incomprehensible phase relating to her sick father. {Spoiler:} Supposedly, the father with whom she had had no relationship with and of whom she hadn't thought of for two decades was dying, and now the sense of loss and grief was overwhelming. "Give me a break," I kept saying to myself, waiting for some twist that would give this faux emotional non-drama a meaning and a big "aha!" moment. But that was not forthcoming.

The book left me wondering what was missing in my ability to read a book and to fail to understand why the NYT. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair (and the Pulitzer Prize committee?) thought so highly of this amateurish piece of writing. Or perhaps, the "Emperor is really naked."
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The Privileges: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
The Privileges: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) by Jonathan Dee (Paperback - October 5, 2010)
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