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We first meet Cynthia and Adam on their wedding day.  It’s the 1980s and, at twenty-two, they are the first of their friends to get married.  We meet them separately which, as the novel progresses through 20-plus years of their lives, you’ll realise is to meet them at a disadvantage: they are strongest when together.  Cynthia is perfection: beautiful, young, poised, smugly self-satisfied and absolutely in control.  Adam is not much different, though he approaches the day with a frantic energy not matched by his bride. 

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee follows Cynthia and Adam through over twenty years of their marriage, from solid middle-class beginnings to the world of private jets, two-story penthouse apartments, and multiple vacation homes purchased with Adam’s not-entirely-above-board earnings. Their children, April and Jonas, are born within the first few years and quickly become integral players as well.  Jonas is by far the more compelling of the two: from childhood he is driven by a need for authenticity, in music, in people, in everything.  He is an odd child, noted for acting like a forty-year old while still prepubescent.  His sister, on the other hand, is a far more typical youth: pushing boundaries, rebelling in small but not shocking ways, and pursuing the path of a socialite and party girl as she matures.  Both Jonas and April face character-defining moments at the end of the book, which makes their storylines all the more satisfying.  Somehow, neither come across as stereotypical and April’s description of the drugs and parties that consume her life is surprisingly simple and therefore compelling, even to a teetotaler like me.

Cynthia and Adam are less simple to describe than their children.  Fierce is perhaps the best description.  They are what the society pages might call a ‘power couple’ – formidable opponents on their own, unstoppable when joint.  As the book began, I worried that I was not going to like Cynthia, though I was instantly taken with Adam, perhaps because he is depicted as vulnerable in the opening pages.  Cynthia, on the other hand, is terribly confident and capable in that way that makes all other women insanely jealous.  But, as the novel progressed and I learned more about her, saw how fiercely she clung to her family, how devoted she was to Adam, how committed to raising her children and acting as a mother-figure to those who needed one, I came to admire her too.  Both characters have their flaws, large and small, but they couldn’t care less about them and, frankly, neither could I.

I adored the storyline devoted to Adam’s business dealings.  Adam is handsome, charming and clever and when he finds a way to work the system, he does it.  And like everything Adam touches, it goes off without a hitch.  There is no comeuppance, no internal angst over what he has done, and no dramatic showdown with the law.  Adam is always in control and it’s perfect.  Sublime even.  I’m tired of books/films/television shows that condemn the rich, so to see a character here who has committed a crime but remains the hero is strikingly refreshing (particularly since this was written in the wake of the recession).  For both Adam and Cynthia, remorse is an unfathomable emotion: there’s no point in looking to the past when you can be preparing for the future.  It’s a sentiment I’ve never quite been able to adopt, but one that I admire nonetheless.

I think that Jonas’ description of his parents’ relationship is the most accurate: “they are just really in love with each other, in this kind of epic way” (p.209).  They love their children and are surprisingly fantastic parents but, more than anything, Cynthia and Adam love each other and their entire lives are focused on making the other happy.  It’s kind of epic, yes, and kind of twisted in the ways they go about it, but it’s also kind of sweet and absolutely worth reading about.   

I had no expectation of particularly liking this book.  It was getting wonderful reviews from all of my favourite publications, but the synopsis really didn’t seem all that exciting.  And it’s not terribly exciting but the book is still excellent.  Sometimes all you need are compelling characters facing a relatively normal existence.

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