Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket is a massively ambitious debut novel about the fallout from massive ambition coupled with unbridled greed. Her tale of the human wages of capitalism run amok explores how the malfeasance and meltdown of an investment bank that was one of the pillars of the financial industry — think Lehman Brothers in 2008 — affects its longtime CEO and his family. To chart the damage, Baker spreads her narrative’s wealth between five women in Greenwich, Connecticut: the CEO’s coolly elegant wife and feisty teenage daughter, their two purported best friends, and the family’s Ivy League–educated nanny.
Our Little Racket takes its title from Anne Carson’s “Little Racket”: “I can hear from their little racket, the birds are burning up and down like holy fools . . . don’t keep saying you don’t hear it too.” But its concerns — with old money versus new, the powerlessness and helplessness of women whose positions rise and fall with their husbands’ net worth, and the moral implications of extreme wealth — come from Edith Wharton.
In lieu of New York society, Baker takes aim at Greenwich’s elite (though not the Russian billionaires who have taken up residence more recently). Among the targets most squarely in her sights are the over-groomed, over-educated, under-occupied women who have outsourced the care of their children and obscenely opulent gated estates to hired help. She has a bead on the telling details, from iced tea garnished with sprigs of basil to a private, in-home shopping party that spares these trophy wives the awkwardness of having to seek their latest luxury fix of jewel-toned stilettos and bead-encrusted gowns in public so soon after the financial collapses that devastated so many investors. This scathing description, from the nanny’s point of view, of the scene along Greenwich Avenue captures Baker’s tone:
It was a mommy playground, and by midafternoon all the frustrated energies of these underutilized women had them trolling this street in droves. They prowled the boutiques and the juice bars, quaking with everything they had but could not use. The Ivy League educations they’d been allowed to pursue, matriculating when they did, in the wake of feminism’s second wave. The endless pluckings and bleachings and injectings that left them in a perpetual state of both tranquility (no wrinkles) and surprise (unnatural eyebrow arches) but also seemed to extract their sexuality from them as if by syringe. She’d never seen so many beautiful women who seemed to live life at such a distant remove from their own sexiness.
The question is, how much time do you want to spend in this company? The bulk of the novel — and it is bulky — focuses on the “shell-shocked year” after Bob “Silverback” D’Amico’s investment bank, Weiss & Partners, sinks into bankruptcy amid swirling suggestions of possible criminal wrongdoing, including shady accounting tricks. While Bob, largely a cipher, stays holed up in their New York apartment, his classy wife, old-moneyed Isabel Berkeley, retreats to her Greenwich bedroom in shock. Isabel gets through the first weeks on Xanax supplied by her friend Mina — the classic outsider straining for admission — before she uncoils into action.
Meanwhile Lily, the D’Amicos’ overqualified nanny, keeps the household running, though we never fully understand why she would embed herself with these people and endure their condescension for nearly ten years, with no plan to write a Nanny Diaries sort of exposé, no matter how much they’re paying her. Her function in Our Little Racket is the critical observer, and above all she’s outraged that neither parent thinks to comfort their eight-year-old twin “robber barons” in training or their fifteen-year-old daughter, Madison, a sophomore at Greenwich Prep, in the midst of this upheaval.
Poor Madison, acting on scant information from her AWOL parents and unable to conceive of her hard-driving, hard-drinking father knowingly committing any wrongdoing, must navigate the brutal gossip and cold shoulders at school, but she’s no pushover: “Madison was her father’s coarse energy poured over ice,” Lily notes. “She was her mother’s goddess features, infused with her father’s ceaseless certainty that he was right.”
As if things weren’t bad enough, Madison’s best friend’s father, a Yale economics professor, considers it his moral imperative to vent his outrage at her father and his ilk in his Paul Krugman–esque columns for The New York Times, despite his daughter’s pleas for tact. The first of his many diatribes on the subject includes these lines: “Weiss is now the Roach Motel — its investors checked in, but they can’t check out . . . And what of D’Amico himself, the King of the Cockroaches? Did he scramble his way out of that car before it went over that cliff? Or will he have to answer, in court, for his crimes?”
Madison, at once unbelievably savvy and credibly vulnerable, takes her father’s “implosion” the hardest, and her story dominates the book. It is the most fully realized — in fact, her perspective alone could easily have carried this novel — but also, in the early chapters, the most tiresome. Pages upon painful pages unfold in school hallways, locker rooms, playing fields, and at the unchaperoned parties where Madison’s unbearably catty, snooty peers trade slights, barbs, precious intel, illicit cocktails, drugs, and sexual favors to elevate their status, making us feel at times as if we’ve wandered into a “Fast Times at Greenwich Prep” sort of story.
But the novel — like many businesses — picks up in its fourth quarter, when the whole situation comes to a head at a local gala and Baker finally generates a modicum of sympathy for these spoiled characters. She captures their very real misery while stressing the repercussions of a heedless “willingness to gamble away” the most important things in life — including family and empathy.
Years later, Madison reflects sagely, “No one, it turned out, ever told the truth about this kind of pain. It wasn’t a crucible; it didn’t always make you new.” Our Little Racket, while it takes too long to get there, ends in just the right place and on just the right note. The bottom line: Angelica Baker is a writer to watch out for.