The Privileges

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Smart, socially gifted, and chronically impatient, Adam and Cynthia Morey are so perfect for each other that united they become a kind of fortress against the world. In their hurry to start a new life, they marry young and have two children before Cynthia reaches the age of twenty-five. Adam is a rising star in the world of private equity and becomes his boss's protégé. With a beautiful home in the upper-class precincts of Manhattan, gorgeous children, and plenty of money, they ...
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The Privileges

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Overview

Smart, socially gifted, and chronically impatient, Adam and Cynthia Morey are so perfect for each other that united they become a kind of fortress against the world. In their hurry to start a new life, they marry young and have two children before Cynthia reaches the age of twenty-five. Adam is a rising star in the world of private equity and becomes his boss's protégé. With a beautiful home in the upper-class precincts of Manhattan, gorgeous children, and plenty of money, they are, by any reasonable standard, successful.

But the Moreys' standards are not the same as other people's. The future in which they have always believed for themselves and their children—a life of almost boundless privilege, in which any desire can be acted upon and any ambition made real—is still out there, but it is not arriving fast enough to suit them. As Cynthia, at home with the kids day after identical day, begins to drift, Adam is confronted with a choice that will test how much he is willing to risk to ensure his family's happiness and to recapture the sense that the only acceptable life is one of infinite possibility.

The Privileges is an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and guided above all else by their epic love for each other. Lyrical, provocative, and brilliantly imagined, this is a timely meditation on wealth, family, and what it means to leave the world richer than you found it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Privileges is verbally brilliant, intellectually astute, and intricately knowing. It is also very funny and a great, great pleasure to read. Jonathan Dee is a wonderful writer."—Richard Ford
 
"Here is an incredibly readable, intelligent, incisive portrait of a particular kind of American family. Jonathan Dee takes us inside the world of what desire for wealth can do, and cannot do, for the self, the soul, and the family. The Privileges is told with admirable conciseness and yet with great breadth, and the reader is swept along, watching the complications of such desire unfold."—Elizabeth Strout
 
"The Privileges is an intimate portrait of a wealthy family that gradually becomes an indictment of an entire social class and historical moment, while also providing a window onto some recent, and peculiarly American, forms of decadence. Jonathan Dee is at once an acerbic social critic, an elegant stylist, and a shrewd observer of the human comedy."—Tom Perrotta
 
"The subjects of money and class are seldom tackled head-on by our best literary minds, which is one of the reasons that Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is such an important and compelling work. The Privileges is a pitch-perfect evocation of a particular stratum of New York society as well as a moving meditation on family and romantic love. The tour de force first chapter alone is worth the price of admission." —Jay McInerney
 
"Mr. Dee has given us a cunning, seductive novel about the people we thought we'd all agreed to hate. His case study of American mega-wealth is delicious page by page and masterly in its balancing of sympathy and critical distance." —Jonathan Franzen

"Ensnaring tale of alienating wealth, in which Dee breaks fresh artistic ground with the sheer beauty and quiet poignancy of his prose. A suspenseful, melancholy, and acidly funny tale about self, family, entitlement, and life’s mysteries and inevitabilities."—Booklist

"Dee notably spurns flat portraits of greed, instead letting the characters' self-awareness and self-forgetfulness stand on their own to create an appealing portrait of a world won by risk."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Thoughtful and bracingly unpredictable"—Kirkus

"Dee’s luminous prose never falters; he’s a master"—Entertainment Weekly

"Scintillating. . .Dee is a remarkably skilled portraitist with a rare talent for rendering his characters’ points of view with deep empathy."—Washington Post

"A transfixing account of the rise and rise of a ‘charmed couple.’ . . . Composed in Dee's typically elegant style -- gorgeous, winding sentences."—Los Angeles Times

"Dee moves from scene to scene like a cinematographer, capturing the essence of a character in a telling glimpse."—Financial Times

"Dee is a writer of skill and emotional depth. His latest, The Privileges, should catapult him to darling status—deservedly. . . . an electric, funny, tragic, loving tale."—Time Out NY

"Graceful, articulate and perceptive, and often hilariously funny...Dee's lively shimmering prose illuminates wonderfully observed dystopian moments...[his] writing is so full of elegance, vitality and complexity...at once funny, subversive and sympathetic."—New York Times Book Review

"Dee has a great eye for detail, physical and emotional, and invites us to watch with eyes wide open as the Morey family sails past disaster into a future most people—until they read about such matters in novels as good as this -- would think they would like to inhabit."—NPR

"A deliciously sophisticated engine of literary darkness."—The Guardian

"The novel goes down like a perfectly chilled glass of champagne—crisp, sparkling and delicious."—Bookforum

"Lucidly written and with a pitch-perfect ear for contemporary mores and dialogue, The Privileges is entertaining—and morally ambiguous."—Economist

"[The Privileges] blends social commentary with psychological exploration…Dee has a gifted essayist’s way with a phrase."—Seattle Times

"Dee is a seamless writer…[he] never mocks his characters or subverts their charms…[which] separates The Privileges from other novels that mine the same shimmering urban terrain."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"[Dee] adeptly penetrates the mindset of these relentlessly narcissistic characters...[His] discerning portrayal of their inner lives keeps the pages turning.—BookPage

"Captivating [and] shrewdly realistic." —Salon.com

"Striking the right note for our times, Dee precisely captures the unethical world of a Manhattan hedge-fund manager, his disaffected daughter, and the glittering dangers of success."—Daily Beast

"Dee notably spurns flat portraits of greed, instead letting the characters' self-awareness and self-forgetfulness stand on their own to create an appealing portrait of a world won by risk."—Publishers Weekly, starred

Roxana Robinson
Dee is at once funny, subversive and sympathetic. In fact, the strange harmonies of his authorial voice, which combines ravishing language, a bleak view of humanity and Dee's own innate good nature, provide much of the novel's interest…part of Dee's appeal is his sympathy for his characters, and his generous tendency to endow them, no matter how foolish or contemptible, with a certain nobility.
—The New York Times Book Review
Joseph Finder
…scintillating…Dee is a remarkably skilled portraitist with a rare talent for rendering his characters' points of view with deep empathy.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
The Moreys, Cynthia and Adam, have been so disarmingly envisioned by Mr. Dee that they manage to confound expectations…Mr. Dee illustrates why indirection in this new-money morality tale can be so much more effective than a heavy hand. However alarmed by his characters he may claim to be, he's too smart to give the Moreys the one-note menace-to-society treatment. That leaves The Privileges excessively cryptic, but this story is so invitingly told that it's much easier to be drawn in than turned off.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Dee's four prior novels (Palladio; etc.) cast an intelligent, calculating eye on the culturally topical, which sparked comparisons to the writings of Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey, a young and charming couple who quickly expand into a brood of four, begins Dee's fifth. Adam and Cynthia's nuanced personalities and playful, sincere exchanges form the novel's empathic backbone as Adam begins to profit immensely from risky side ventures while working for a hedge fund. Dee establishes a trust with his readers that allows Adam's murky business ethics to escape the spotlight of outright moral scrutiny, and by showing how Adam endangers his privilege—while his children endanger their own lives—Dee reveals how risk is a kind of numbing balm. April, Adam's daughter, responds to the boredom of material comfort by resorting to drug-induced self-effacement. The novel climaxes as the children face the possibility of their own death, though lucidity after mortal danger is fleeting: “I can feel myself forgetting what it feels like to feel,” April says. Dee notably spurns flat portraits of greed, instead letting the characters' self-awareness and self-forgetfulness stand on their own to create an appealing portrait of a world won by risk. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Dee's latest novel (after Palladio) is a scathing portrait of the perks and perils of a life of privilege. Cynthia and Adam Morey are a golden couple—beautiful, ambitious, untouchable. From their wedding in their early twenties, to raising two children in Manhattan, to Adam's rise in the financial world, they exude a self-absorbed confidence, and their commitment to each other shines. Yet Adam's relentless insider trading and lack of conscience are pathological. Daughter April is aimless and abuses drugs, while son Jonas eschews his trust fund and attends art school. In a twisted and bizarre sideplot, he comes running back to the safety of his privileged life after a near-death experience. Dee excels at detailing contemporary scenes, delivering pitch-perfect dialog, and crafting brutal, hard-to-forget interactions, as when Cynthia coldly buys off her dying father's girlfriend in order to spend a few last hours with the man who deserted her as a child. VERDICT Readers who appreciate complex characters with questionable morality will enjoy discussing this stylish work. [Library marketing; ebook available 1/10: ISBN 978-1-58836-920-8.]—Christine Perkins, Bellingham P.L., WA
Kirkus Reviews
Gilded young go-getter creates, not always legally, a cocoon for his family in Dee's mostly buoyant fifth novel about money, family and mortality. Adam and Cynthia Morey, Midwestern transplants in Manhattan, have beauty, brains, charm and a formidable determination to carve out a comfortable world for themselves, though they do not come from money; Adam's father was a pipe fitter. The couple, married when they're only 22, have some simple rules. Forget the past. Seize the day. Keep in shape. Glow! Two kids, April and Jonas, arrive early; no problem. Adam has the Midas touch and the trust of his boss at his private-equity firm. Honoring complexity, Dee (Palladio, 2002, etc.) refuses to paint Adam as a total narcissist or philanderer. Unlike his peer Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, Adam has a doglike devotion to his wife, the stronger character. They dote on their kids; family means this charmed circle of four. Everyone else is an outsider. When her stepsister has a breakdown, Cynthia dumps her like somebody else's garbage. Dee tracks the Moreys over 20-plus years as they strive for a life without limits. Their sex life still sizzles; aging is forbidden; their money keeps growing, helped by Adam's involvement in insider trading, a risk he enjoys. Still, we ignore limits and connectedness at our peril, and that's Dee's theme, implied without glib moralizing. The novel's final third turns darker. Both parents are frantically busy, heavily involved in charity work; they're boldface names, with their own foundation. Then Cynthia takes a time out; her dad is dying in a Florida hospice and she feels uncharacteristically bereft. The pampered college-age kids appear trapped. April isspiraling downward; drugs, meaningless sex. Jonas, an art student and half-hearted rebel against his family's values, almost loses his life to a madman because of his lack of survival skills. Thoughtful and bracingly unpredictable, though the lack of a resolution is frustrating. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400068678
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/5/2010
  • Pages: 258
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Dee is the author of four novels, most recently Palladio. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper's, and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A wedding! The first of a generation; the bride and groom are just twenty- two, young to be married these days. Most of their friends flew in yesterday, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good- natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogates into the world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel proudly unready. They are adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults. Last night’s rehearsal dinner ended with the overmatched restaurant manager threatening to call the police. The day to come shapes up as an unstable compound of camp and import. Nine hours before they’re due at the church, many of them are still sleeping, but already the thick old walls of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club seem to hum with a lordly overenthusiasm.

 Mid- September. Since Labor Day, the western half of Pennsylvania has been caught in a late and dispiriting heat wave. Cynthia wakes up in her mother’s house, in a bed she’s awakened in only five or six times in her life, and her first thought is for the temperature. She pulls on a t- shirt in case anyone else is awake, passes her burdensome stepsister Deborah (never Debbie) sleeping in flannel pajamas half on and half off the living room couch, and slides open the door to the deck, from which she can see in the distance a few limp flags on the golf course at Fox Chapel. Cool, tolerably cool anyway, though it’s still too early to tell anything for sure. It can’t even be seven yet, she thinks. Not that she’s worried. The specter of her bridesmaids holding beer bottles to their foreheads to cool off, or of Adam wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he promises himself to her, only makes her smile. She’s not the type to fold if things don’t go perfectly; what matters most to her is that the day be one that nobody who knows her will ever forget, a day her friends will tell stories about. She turns and heads back indoors, past her own fading footprints in the heavy dew on the cedar planks of the deck.

 She never imagined a wedding in Pittsburgh, because she never had any reason to imagine it until her mother remarried and moved out here two years ago. To the extent she’d pictured it at all, Cynthia had always assumed she’d be married back in Joliet Park: but in the middle of her last semester at Colgate she learned that her father had sold their old house there, in which he had not lived for a long time; and when she announced her engagement two months later her mother Ruth went off on one of her unpacifiable jags about Cynthia’s stepfather Warren being “a part of this family” and would not stand for any implication that this was less than entirely true. To force- march these outsize personalities back to the scene of the family’s dissolution in Joliet Park, to listen to them bitch over the seating chart and over old friends whose post- divorce allegiances were sometimes painfully ambiguous, was out of the question. It would have been a gruesome sort of nostalgia, and pointless at that. A wedding is rightfully about the future if it is about anything at all.

 They could have married in New York—where Cynthia and Adam already shared an apartment—and in fact that was the arrangement Adam gently pushed for, on the grounds, typically male, of maximum simplicity. But the truth was that that wouldn’t have seemed unusual enough to Cynthia, too little distinct from a typical Saturday night out drinking and dancing with their friends, just with fancier clothes and a worse band. She wasn’t completely sure why the idea should appeal to her at all—the big schmaltzy wedding, the sort of wedding for which everyone would have to make travel plans—but she didn’t make a habit of questioning her wants. So Pittsburgh it was. Adam shrugged and said he only cared about making her happy; her father sent her a lovely note from wherever he was living now, implying that the whole idea had been his to begin with; and Warren expressed himself by opening up his checkbook, a consequence, to tell the truth, of which Cynthia had not been unmindful.

 She tiptoes past the couch to avoid waking Deborah, because waking her might cause her to speak, and on one’s wedding day there are some trials one ought to be spared. They don’t know each other that well, but little things about Deborah excite Cynthia’s derision as though they have lived together for years. The flannel pajamas, for instance: she is two years older than Cynthia but so congenitally chilly that she and Ruth might as well be roommates at the old folks’ home. The house was bought with a second life in mind, a life in which the children were grown and gone, which explains why there is only one spare bedroom. Though the couch looks gratifyingly uncomfortable, Cynthia considered a campaign to pack Deborah off to the Athletic Club with all the other guests, so that her maid of honor and best friend, Marietta, could stay at the house instead. But family obligations are perverse. It makes no sense at all that this palpably hostile sexless geek should be one of her bridesmaids, and one of Cynthia’s many close friends’ feelings hurt as a result; yet here she is.

 In the kitchen Ruth, Cynthia’s mother, whose last name is now Harris, is drinking a cup of tea standing up, in a green ankle- length bathrobe she holds closed at the neck. Cynthia passes her and opens the refrigerator without a word. “Warren’s out,” Ruth says, in answer to a question it would not occur to Cynthia to ask. “He went to get you some coffee. We only keep decaf in the house, so he went out specially for you.”

 Cynthia scowls at the effrontery of decaf coffee, a fetish of the old and joyless. Tossing a loaf of bread on the counter, she stands on tiptoe to search the cupboard where she remembers the ancient jams are kept; then, feeling her mother’s gaze, she turns her head to look back over her shoulder and says, “What?”

 It’s the underwear: the fact that she is parading around in it, but also the underwear itself, the unhomeliness of it, the fact that her daughter has grown into a woman whom it pleases to spend a lot of money on underwear. Shameless is the word for it. All Ruth wants is a little gravitas for today of all days, a proper sense of nervousness or even fear, which she might then think of some way to allay. One last moment of reliance. But no: it became clear weeks ago that all this was no rite of passage into womanhood for her daughter— it’s a party, a big party for her and all her friends, and she and Warren are just there to pick up the tab. For the last six or eight years, nearly every sight of her daughter has caused a certain look to cross Ruth’s face, a look of just- you- wait, though the question “wait for what?” is not one she could answer and thus she keeps her mouth shut. The flatness of Cynthia’s stomach, the strength and narrowness of her hips, more than anything the way she carries herself with such immodesty in a body whose nearness to the modern ideal is bound to provoke an unpredictable range of response: self- satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights onto the record.

 But she reprimands herself; today, no matter who cares to deny it, is not just any day. She feels the faint echo of her own terror in the hours before her first wedding, a terror that was partly sexual, which counts as a bond between them even though her daughter’s sexuality is a subject she has long since lost the fortitude to go near. “So,” she says, trying for a conciliatory tone. “This is your special day.” And Cynthia turns around, mouth open, and laughs—a laugh Ruth has heard before, the only solace for which is a retreat into memories of when her only child was a baby. 

Behind them, the digital clock on the microwave blinks silently to seven- thirty. In the living room, Deborah, having woken herself with her own snoring, makes a little groaning sound that no one hears and pushes her face deeper into the gap between the cushions and the sofa back. At the Athletic Club, the weekend desk clerk consults the computer printout in her hand and dials the extension for Adam’s room. She’s seen the Daily Events schedule and recognizes his name as that of the groom; to the scripted wake- up greeting at the top of the printout she adds best wishes of her own, because she saw him last night and he’s cute. 

“Thanks,” Adam says, and hangs up. He too goes straight to the window to check the weather. His window faces the alley, though; he’ll probably get a better sense of the day’s prospects from the TV. He turns it on with the sound down but then lies back on the bed, fingers laced behind his head, and forgets to watch. 

He hates sleeping alone and maybe for that reason he spent the minutes before the phone rang in an extravagant dream, a dream about driving a car with no steering wheel in it, a car that responded to his slightest weight shifts, like a skateboard or a sled. 

One hour until breakfast in the hotel restaurant with his parents and his younger brother and best man, Conrad. Having thought of this, he tries to forget it again so that he can be genuinely blameless if he shows up late. He’s a little hung over from the rehearsal dinner, though others, he reflects, will have cause to be a whole lot more hung over than he. Too early to call Cynthia, who’s probably still asleep. What would really calm him down is sex with her—as it is he starts most mornings that way; it scatters the vague anxieties with which he wakes—but today that’s not going to happen. With sudden inspiration he arches his back and pounds on the wall above his headboard, the wall his room shares with the room where Conrad is staying. 

Conrad doesn’t hear; up for an hour already, he is standing in the shower practicing his toast. It was the only duty that gave him any pause at all when he accepted the best- man role. He blushes and shakes whenever he has to speak in public; and how relatively easy it would be to pull this off in front of a ballroom full of strangers, as opposed to friends and family with their license for pitiless longterm teasing, people before whom there is no question of pretending even for a few minutes that he is anyone other than who he is. “They are a charmed couple,” he says, because this is a phrase over which he’s stumbled in earlier rehearsals; and it’s too late now for a rewrite. “They are a charmed chouple. Fuck.” And he starts from the beginning. 

Waking in the other rooms on the second and third floor of the Athletic Club are friends of the bride and groom—couple friends, friends who have brought especially serious or promising dates— almost all of whom find themselves acting, at that hour, on a sexual impulse that’s unsettlingly strong even for the bloom of youth. Some are laughing, and some stare into their partners’ eyes with an urgency the memory of which will have them avoiding each other’s gaze an hour later. They are not used to the licentiousness of hotel rooms; and the knowledge that on this particular weekend they have not just infiltrated this stuffy club but taken it over gives a subterraneous group sense to each intimate encounter, a sense of orgy that makes them want to offend strangers, to exert themselves until the walls of that place come down. 

Indeed there is one couple that knocks the headboard against the wall behind Adam’s parents’ bed so loudly that his mother just prays she doesn’t know them. She even tells her husband to call the front desk and complain, but he’s in the bathroom and hears, as a rule, what he chooses to hear. 

At eight- thirty Marietta’s car rolls into the Harrises’ driveway. Inside the kitchen she and the still undressed Cynthia kiss like sisters; “Jesus, it’s fucking hot out there,” Marietta says. “Oh hi, Mrs. Sikes. I mean Mrs. Harris!” It’s more than Ruth can bear; she smiles premonitorily and withdraws from the kitchen. 

“So shall we go do the hair thing?” Marietta says, but then all of a sudden Deborah is in the doorway, hair matted, face pebbled from the rough upholstery of the couch, looking at them both with tribal hatred. 

“Your phone’s ringing,” she says to her stepsister, and turns and leaves. 

The phone is on the bedroom floor, underneath the jacket Cynthia wore to the rehearsal dinner. Marietta follows her through the living room. 

“Thanks for bringing it to me, there, Debski,” says Cynthia, though Deborah has disappeared into the bathroom. “So, you didn’t bring your dress? Where is it?” 

“In the freezer,” Marietta says. 

“Oh, don’t be such a baby. Haven’t you heard? It’s my Special Day.” 

“Well, that’s my point. You’re the bride. Still well within your power to change the whole dress code to, like, beach casual.” 

“Wear a tank top to your own wedding, slut,” Cynthia says. 

“That’s not how we roll here in Pittsburgh.” 

“I’ve got that not- so- fresh feeling,” Marietta says. “That’s all I’m saying.” 

In his chair watching CNN as they pass behind him, Warren hears all this and, though he would still like to be a kind of father to this young woman, knows that for the moment the only dignified course is to pretend that he is not even in the room at all. 

Cynthia smiles at Marietta and takes the phone out on the deck. “Isn’t this bad luck?” she says, sliding the door shut behind her. 

“I saw your dad in the lobby last night,” Adam says. “I recognized him from his picture. He seemed in pretty good form. Have you called him yet?” 

“No,” she says, and her heart races a little bit. “I will in a while. Hey, what time is it?” 

“Quarter to four.” 

“Very funny. I mean aren’t you supposed to be at breakfast with your parents?” 

“Maybe.” 

“Well don’t leave Conrad alone with them, for God’s sake. You know how they get. Plus he’s got the rings so let’s not antagonize him.” 

Adam smiles, waiting for the elevator in the empty hotel corridor. “Can you believe we’re doing this?” he says. 

The boards on the deck are already burning her feet. “Not too late to back out,” she said, “if that’s why you’re calling.” 

“Well, I still have seven hours to think about it, right?” 

“Me too. Tell you what, if I’m not there by, let’s say, ten of four, you just go ahead and assume I’m not coming, okay?” 

“Fair enough. Seeing how everything’s paid for and all, if you don’t show I’ll just wave one of the bridesmaids up and marry her.” 

“Which one you have your eye on?” 

There is a pause. “I missed you when I woke up this morning,” he says. 

Her view of the golf course from earlier that morning has now been erased by haze. She closes her eyes. “Me too,” she says. “You won’t forget pictures, right?” 

“Two- fifteen in the Trophy Room. Conrad’s carrying around a little schedule.” 

“Okay,” she says. “See you then. Enjoy your last few hours of freedom.” 

“Gotta go,” he says. “The hookers are here.” 

She hangs up on him, smiling. In the living room, Marietta stands uncomfortably, while Deborah, back on the couch, watches her like a guard dog, like some emissary from the underworld of the socially damned. Marietta can read her hatred only as jealousy, which softens her own attitude a bit. 

“So,” she says, and remembers that Deborah is a graduate student somewhere, in something. “School is good?” 

Adam strolls into the hotel dining room and sees that his parents, sitting with a stricken- looking Conrad, have ordered their breakfast but not touched it. They missed their connection in New York yesterday and arrived too late to make it to the rehearsal dinner, which may have been just as well. He kisses his mother on the top of her head. “How’s your room?” he asks. “Everything to your liking?” Adam’s father makes a sarcastic noise, which his mother recognizes and preemptively talks over.

“Very nice,” she says. “Very comfortable. You have to point out Cynthia’s parents to me so we can say thank you.” 

The two sets of parents have never met. There didn’t seem much point to it. “Marietta made it home okay last night?” Adam asks Conrad. Conrad nods but does not stop eating, because he would very much like to get this breakfast over with. Adam signals the waitress for coffee. He hasn’t really looked at either of his parents since he sat down. No one is looking at Mr. Morey, though he seems to be mysteriously gathering himself nonetheless, like a clock about to strike. Two heart attacks have hunched his shoulders in the way of a man much older than he actually is. Up in the room are four portable oxygen tanks, in case he needs them, and in the purse at his wife’s feet are various pills and phone numbers. But his short temper and unregulated resentments suggest that his physical failings are a kind of natural outgrowth of his personality, and everyone who knows him, mindful of his angry pride, is unsolicitous toward him. He is tormented by the efflorescence of foolishness and waste of all kinds, everywhere around him. He was a pipe fitter who became a full- time union executive until his disabilities forced him to retire. The Pittsburgh Athletic Club is exactly the kind of place that sets him off. His wife has made him put on a coat and tie for breakfast even though she will now have to hear about it for the next month. 

But Adam is not embarrassed by them in this setting, as his brother is, because he doesn’t really associate them all that closely with himself anymore. He is amused by their helpless compulsion to be themselves, and will wind them up like a music box at any opportunity. “Hey, you know what I found in my room?” he says. “In the dresser drawer? A list of room rates. Did you guys see that? Do you have any idea what this place costs?” 

“Oh, Adam, please,” his mother whispers, “today of all—” 

“As it happens, I did,” his father says, reddening. “I’m just glad I’m not the sap paying for all this.” 

“More reason to be glad we never had girls,” his mother says, and laughs as if she were being filmed laughing. 

“That wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to me,” Mr. Morey says. “I don’t have to put on a show for anybody. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not.” 

Adam abruptly stands up. “Oh look, there’s Mr. Sikes,” he says. “Excuse me. I’m gonna go practice calling him Dad.” And he crosses the room to where the bride’s dapper father sits at a table by himself, reading the paper. Conrad watches him leave in disbelief. His parents stare accusingly at each other. A moment later the waitress comes by and fills Adam’s coffee cup. 

The doors to the hotel ballroom are shut, and behind them, in moments of silence, one can hear the vacuum cleaners run. Teenage girls in stiff black skirts walk from table to table, checking the place settings, counting on their fingers. They work slowly; the air conditioning is turned up all the way, and with the room not yet full of bodies it is exotically cold, the coldest place in the hotel. Only those most desperate for a cigarette pass through the double doors to the infernal kitchen and the steaming alley beyond. 

At the hotel bar sits the wedding planner, habitually early, having sent her son and his friend to the florist’s in her van, praying they haven’t stopped to get high along the way. It’s why she doesn’t pay them in advance. The bar isn’t officially open yet but Masha knows everyone at the Athletic Club; this will be her fourth reception there this year. Though it’s before noon, she feels like (as her father used to say) a drink drink, and Omar the bartender would certainly comp her one, but while she’s on the job alcohol is out of the question. Something like that gets out and your reputation is shot. True, the bride—whose superior attitude Masha doesn’t especially care for— isn’t even from Pittsburgh and acts as if she might never set foot here again after today; but the stepfather, whose name is on the checks, is some rainmaker at Reed Smith, and the mother, whose superior attitude she doesn’t much care for either, is one of those chronically unsatisfied types who love nothing better than to nurse along some scandal, substantiated or otherwise. 

But that’s the secret to Masha’s success: you get invested not in the people, who can let you down, but in the ceremony, which never does. She doesn’t say it out loud very often but she thinks of herself as a guardian of something, a finger in the dike holding back total indifference toward the few things that have always mattered, ritual and devotion and commitment. When you thought of it that way, the less you happened to care for the families themselves, the more noble your work became. Her own marriage ended after nine years, but that detracted in no way from the beautiful memory of her wedding day itself; in fact, that’s what you were left with, she thinks, that and a beloved if somewhat less than reliable son. Besides, if it were up to her they would all still be together, husband and wife and child, through happy and contentious times alike. But not everything is her decision. 

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Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think the author was ultimately trying to say about wealth and greed? Do you agree with him?

2. Adam and Cynthia have a bit of an obsession with leaving their pasts behind them. Do you think this serves them well? What about their children? Does it ultimately help or hinder them?

3. There are no specific references to dates in the novel, giving the story a sense that it is suspended in time. Why do you think the author chose to do that?

4. Did you find yourself able to sympathize with these characters throughout their rise? How important or necessary do you think it is for the reader to be able to do that?

5. There are many thematic elements in the plot: wealth, family, risk, love. Which resonated for you the most?

6. Would you describe Adam and Cynthia as amoral, or as having their own sort of morality? Is there a difference?

7. Many of Jonathan Dee's novels have been referred to as social critiques. Do you think he meant for The Privileges to be interpreted that way?

8. This book came out on the heels of a global financial meltdown. How do you think the characters would have fared in today's financial climate?

9. Jonas develops obsessions--unusual even for someone his age--with music and then with art. What do you think he's searching for?

10. The novel skips through time, with each chapter beginning a few years later than the previous one. Do you like this technique? Why do you think the author chose it?

11. What did you make of Cynthia's loyal attachment to her absent father?

12. April and Jonas respond to their family¹s enormous wealth in very different ways. Why do you think that is? And do you think either of them truly has the capacity to change at the end?

13. What do you think the next generation of Moreys (presuming there is one) will be like?

14. Do you think Adam and Cynthia got what they deserved in the end?

15. What does it mean, finally, to be privileged?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 54 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(7)

4 Star

(13)

3 Star

(16)

2 Star

(14)

1 Star

(4)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 54 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Small masterpiece

    Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is the story of a couple who dedicate themselves to each other and only each other. They are glorious and beautifully immoral, and yet they don't go off on a killing spree or anything remotely debauched, they just make money, lots of it. Which somehow makes their story so uniquely American, the fact that Adam and Cynthia Morey move effortlessly through life, refusing to ever review or regret their past, convinced that if they are getting away with it, then they aren't doing anything wrong. The reader can't help but read on, waiting for their carefully constructed life to fall apart, torn between wanted them to succeed and wanting them to reap their just rewards.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 15, 2011

    Blank after thought

    The writing was well enough but I feel like it pulled up short, like every point fell off a cliff. I don't know what I'm supposed to take away from the book or how it's supposed to make me feel but I feel very unsatisfied. I wanted more of everything, more character building, more explanations, more of a beginning/middle/and end feel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 6, 2011

    I really liked this book. It was written with a subtle humor and although the telling of the tale began to slow about 2/3rd of the way through, it was only a brief segment and it quickly picked up and gained momentum as it raced toward its conclusion

    This story began with a young, upwardly mobile couple as they prepare for their marriage. Their wedding day is scrutinized. You can feel their youthful exuberance. They are a charmed couple and believe they can make the rules, defying authority, laughing at the system. Whether or not they grow and mature, break the rules and succeed, is immaterial, in the end. The only thing that is important is their abiding affection for each other. For the reader, it will bring back the memories of one's own planning of any event, complete with the anxieties and joyfulness. It will take the reader through the memories of their lives with familiar scenes bringing knowing smiles of recognition to their faces. The family dynamics are really amusing and true to form. In this case there are blended families involved and their interrelationships are often hilarious. As the story moves through the years, we see the couple change. The book is one in which several generations may identify. It is hard to come up with a reason that someone might not enjoy this book, unless the stereotyping of the generations feels overwhelming. It is best to just keep turning the pages with the Moreys. You will not be disappointed. Cynthia is a stay at home mom. Adam is climbing the ladder of success in the investment world. He lives his life to make Cynthia happy. The children, April and Jonas, are living in the lap of luxury. They are not in touch with reality or with true emotions. Neither the children nor the parents, can do wrong, even when they most decidedly, do wrong. No matter what happens, Adam and Cynthia "fix" it. There is always a way to handle whatever happens for money is power and control and it has bought them privileges not afforded to the ordinary person. Even as a perfect couple, they grew somewhat dissatisfied as the years passed. They felt they were missing something and wanted more. Having attained one dream they turned their attention to another. They pushed every envelope to its limit as they climbed higher and higher into the world of the rich. They had to keep on buying, doing and going. What started out as a simple adventure into marriage and family turned into an experiment in greed. They lived to attain things. Their children loved them but they also pushed the envelope and disobeyed the rules knowing their cool parents would bail them out and provide them with whatever they wished. I thought the Moreys were hypocrites. They felt they were above the laws and rules for mere mortals. Their mistakes were never rectified, they were justified and covered up. Though I found the characters to be unpleasant people, I couldn't dislike them. The author made them believable. People were drawn to them as I was. Their charisma moved them forward. For every negative aspect portrayed, another favorable one was ready in the wings to stand beside it. It is a timeless novel for readers of all ages. I identified with many of the scenes and saw my own children in others. The lack of privileges or their abundance, matters not; the book made one think about the meaning of privilege and the access it offers. Does responsibility toward others come with the assumption of privilege? What legacy do we leave behind when we "shuffle off this mortal coil?" What are acceptable means to achieve it?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    Young Rich New Yorkers

    Yes they're young and rich, but how did they get there? This is one couples story from wedding day to mid-life. It has a probably accurate (how would i know?) view of over-induldged young adults (the couples'c children) as they come to realize that they have quite the life. Well written and food for thought about people with more money than most of us..

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2013

    Disappointing

    The book is well- written but , for me , did not live up to the raves on the jacket . One review said it is about the new American family . I hope this is not the case . Except for very minor characters, none inspired me . In fact, I would not care to know any of them . I also hated the ending - which I felt just tailed off .

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  • Posted October 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A huge disappointment.

    Boring. The author was also too lighthanded with details. Just a boring disappointment.

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  • Posted May 10, 2011

    Less than 1 star

    This is drivel and very boring. I kept reading hoping for some redeeming value...none was found.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    The Privileges was not one of my favorites.

    The story drags on about nothing for too long. I do not particularly enjoy reading about all out greed. Would not reccomend the book to friends.

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    Posted March 6, 2010

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