Posted by: Jeanie F | September 22, 2010

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

I always wonder how I’m expected to feel about a book in which none of the protagonists are sympathetic. The Privileges, which has received great reviews from noteworthy sources, left me feeling as empty as the characters who inhabit this cynical and depressing book.

This is the story of Adam and Cynthia Morey, the “golden couple” among their college friends, who marry early and begin an unbroken trajectory to the top. Adam goes to work in an investment firm, where he becomes the heir apparent to the wealthy and eccentric owner. Cynthia quickly pops out two children – April and Jonas – but begins to feel that something is missing. She believes that something special, something truly unique, is expected of her and Adam, and she expresses this to her husband. With no apparent thought or reflection, Adam then jumps headlong into a course of action that leaves them financially successful beyond their wildest dreams, but morally and spiritually bankrupt. To Adam’s way of thinking:

It wasn’t enough to trust your future, pull it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic, sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony. That kind of meek belief in the ultimate justice of things was not in Adam’s makeup. . . The noblest risks were the secret ones. Fortuna favet fortibus [Fortune favors the bold].

 We see  the impact that their unremitting self-centeredness has on their children when the children are grown, as this story takes us from the Morey’s wedding day the children’s young adulthood. The odd thing is, the Moreys don’t seem, at any time, to believe they’ve done anything other than the right, the inevitable, thing. Any sense of ethics or integrity is barely a blip on their radar screen. Having cut ties with their natal families, raised children who struggle with serious personal issues, and, apparently, friendless, Cynthia sums up their lives near the end of the novel when she tells Adam:

Baby, we didn’t just succeed, we’re a fucking multinational. We’ve trademarked ourselves. It doesn’t get any more solid than us.

What ultimately saves this story is Jonathan Dee’s strong writing, which never hits you on the head with the obvious. As the reader, I found myself accepting the Morey’s points of view until suddenly, almost unbidden, I would realize that something was truly “rotten in Denmark.” It would have been so easy for Dee to go over the top in portraying these shallow people – it is to his credit that they never became stereotypes.

If you decide to read this – and I believe that I would recommend it – keep your eye on Jonas. He’s really the only character who may surprise you.

Grade – B


  1. This book has slipped in under my radar. It sounds quite interesting. I wish more authors would write novels about characters they aren’t entirely sympathetic to. It gets a little tiresome when the author is totally supporting the main character in every way. It’s great when the author writes about someone they don’t completely like.

  2. Then you should enjoy The Privileges. I thought it was a good story and, maybe more to the point, realistic. There was never a place in the book where I thought “Real people would never act this way.” Unfortunately, they were far too believable.

  3. Oh, hopping by! I’m excited to have found your blog (via your hop to my blog!).

    I just signed up for an e-mail subscription.

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