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Archive for the ‘Martha McPhee’ Category

When I first read the New York Times review of Dear Money by Martha McPhee I was intrigued.  It promised to be a Pygmalion tale, a morality tale, and one of the all-too-few modern novels dealing with the circumstances that lead to the current financial climate.  As much as I try to suppress my background in commerce, it never quite goes away, and that made this book impossible to resist.

And how glad I am that I didn’t try to resist!  It was completely fascinating from start to finish, an energetic exploration of the capitalist American dream and the equally American belief in personal reinvention. 

India Palmer is an award-winning novelist, the mother of two, and the wife of a talented artist.  To her friends in New York City, she has the perfect bohemian life, rare in that she was brave enough to risk stability and material comforts to pursue her dream.  But now in her late thirties, India isn’t sure her dream career is quite as idyllic as her acquaintances believe.  Her impressive writing credentials (and the teaching job she gained because of them) come with a less than impressive cash flow.  Living in New York, socializing more with millionaires than starving artists, India finds it all too easy to live as they do, indulging in a lifestyle far beyond her means.  As the publishing date for her newest novel draws nearer with little hope of this book grossing more than the previous ones, India accepts the offer of the eccentric Win Johns to turn her into a trader during the heady days of the mid-noughties. 

For Win, this is a Pygmalion-style bet with his employer.  He recognizes in India the traits of successful traders: she’s intelligent, quick-witted, competitive, and hungry.  However, unlike most Pygmalion stories, India’s Henry Higgins (Win, who literally appears out of the blue in a biplane) doesn’t play a huge role and the focus is on India’s internal transformation, from a Manhattan writer, frustrated by what she lacks, to a wealthy trader, delighted by her new-found power and wealth.  Even as she drifts away from her children and her husband, India seems thrilled by her new circumstances – as she says, “it’s a lie that money is more interesting for those who don’t have it than for those who do” (p. 306).  It’s not simply her career that has changed, it’s her entire personality and her entire life. 

It is easy to see why she is so seduced by Wall Street: it is not only the money, it is the culture, one so different to her laid-back, poverty-stricken artist’s circle and one she seems much better suited to.  The intensity and drive, the desperation for more, the chase for a bigger deal, a bigger profit and the adrenaline rush that comes with it consume her.  Understandably so.  Her office is a cross between a casino and a frat house – everything is a competition and everything has money riding on it.  It’s a hard, inconsiderate profession and it’s brilliantly captured here, in all it’s juvenille antics, particularly towards the end as the market is beginning to turn and India observes that:

The guys in subprime were writing lyrics like this one, sung to the ‘American Pie’ tune:

 …I can’t remember if I cried
When I saw the CFC slide,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the subprime died

So bye, bye repo money supply
Sent my collateral to four dealers
But they all asked me why.
And the good old boys were on a crack-induced high
Singin’ ‘This’ll be the day the loans die,
This’ll be the day the loans die (P. 321-322)

McPhee doesn’t gloss over the technical jargon or intricacies of her protagonist’s new profession and while it may send the layperson scrambling for “The Dummies Guide to Trading” these details lend an authenticity to the story.  The basic business concepts are explained clearly enough, it’s just the details of the specific trades that I found terrifyingly complex, but then I ran away from this particular stream of study as soon as I was able at University.  

I was captivated by the very realistic (or at least seemingly realistic) glimpses McPhee gave into two such different professions: writing and trading.  Obviously, McPhee has some experience with the former.  I am actually now rather terrified to write reviews, after seeing the author’s point of view through India’s eyes (the mention of how reviewers always quote the wrong sections was particularly worrying).  I was especially struck by India’s memory of a childhood writing assignment where she fictionalized her family’s past and, in doing so, realised what it meant to be a writer:

That facts were malleable – not irreducible finished goods but a kind of originating ore, to be shaped and spun and even discarded wholesale for the sake of the story – was a new and powerful discovery.  It made me feel powerful, because I understood that people wanted to believe that what they were reading had actually happened, and I believed I could make them feel that even if I was ‘lying,’ (p.95)

There is so much more I could write here, about India’s relationship with her family and how her new career allows her husband to become more productive as an artist while their daughters spend more and more time with their nanny, about Will and Emma Chapman, ‘perfect’ Will who exchanges his life on Wall Street for the life of a writer while India does the opposite, or perhaps about Win, the man who started India on her mad transformation.  Instead, why don’t you just read the book and let me know what you think?  It’s well worth the time and effort.

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