Little Darlings: How Boring Are Bankers?

On a late February Friday, I saw this tweet from Andrew Ross Sorkin about a book his wife—a literary agent—had worked on that he tagged with the high-concept pitch of Too Big to Fail meets Devil Wears Prada.

The premise seemed too good to ignore. Following Sorkin’s link, I discovered The Darlings by Cristina Alger, a novel that imagines a long weekend (Thanksgiving to be exact) in the lives of a family much like the Noels who had made a fortune running a feeder fund to Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

Alger’s name also seemed significant. A quick tour of Google revealed that she was the daughter of David Alger, the ill-fated head of Fred Alger Management who died in the company’s offices in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

A few days later, the New York Times offered a gentle drive by piece about the former Goldman Sachs associate turned WilmerHale lawyer and her book that promises, “Ms. Alger, 31, has now stepped outside the hush-hush circle of her upbringing — Chapin, white-gown debut, four social years at Harvard — to drop a dime on the whole shebang.”

So I downloaded the book from Amazon and started reading with the expectation of learning something meaningful—or at least mean—about those at the center of the financial crisis. What I found instead was something like the Upper East Side soap opera Gossip Girl but written as if it took place in Kansas City. Alger’s milieu is Lily Pond Lane via Park Avenue all the way but the novel’s attempt to set the action inside law firms, hedge funds or the SEC leaves it gasping for air.

The opulence of their surroundings cannot change the dull, desperate sideshow the financial industry has become. None of her characters is a commanding presence because all they command is numbers on screens. Alger’s rich folks seem lost and lonely, not demanding or intimidating.

Since there’s absolutely no reason to doubt Ms. Alger’s bona fides as a card-carrying member of New York’s financial and legal elite—though the book does seem oddly populated by only two ethnic groups WASPs and Jews (this is finance: where are the clever Indians and Asians, the Russian physicists-turned-quants?)—one has to conclude from reading The Darlings that the resumé gods has simply lost their ability to impress.

The roman a clef that seeks to explain the nexus of business and social life has been more than entertainment. In the 1980s, two of the most successful examples were Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and Dominick Dunne’s People Like Us. They contained apposite details that exposed the inner lives of the 1% to a much broader audience. For decades after, our understanding—even our grudging awe—of the wealthiest and most powerful came from these books.

Alger doesn’t have the eye of a Wolfe or Dunne but the novel’s failure isn’t really hers. The spell that we’ve been living under for 30 years that made characters like Bruce Wasserstein cultural legends seems to have been broken. What bankers and the legions of lawyers supporting deal-making do now seems like drudgery. And the idea that their lives and their milieu is a breeding ground for superheroes now seems far-fetched:

Were they really willing to fight tooth and nail the way her parents had, toiling away at hundred-hour-a-week jobs to live in their fifteen-hundred-square-foot apartment with its troublesome electric stove, shelling out thirty-four thousand dollars—thirty-four thousand!—a year for a single tuition at Spence. Not to mention what they would have to spend on clothes and nannies and gymnastics just so that their child didn’t feel wildly behind her peers . . . and could they possibly bear to spend every summer weekend with Carter and Ines once they had children? That seemed unreasonable, but of course you couldn’t keep a child cooped up in an apartment in August when all her classmates were playing tennis or riding horses . . . so in addition to the million-dollar mortgage they were already carrying their apartment, not to mention the appallingly high maintenance charges that they forked over to the co-op each month, they would need to consider at least a small summer rental in the Hamptons . . . what would that run them what, fifty thousand dollars for the season? A hundred thousand? And was it true that a top SAT tutor cost a thousand dollars an hour? Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers? For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steel nerve . . . a ruthless will to succeed. Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think: These are the offspring of killers.

The Darlings cannot support the weight of a cultural turning point as big as the death of the banker. But, in a very real way, the book’s failure to excite the imagination does add yet another pebble to the now very large pile of evidence that we have entered a new era where the old shibboleths no longer reassure nor do they suffice.

Perhaps the social novel itself is completely out-moded. But I have a hard time seeing that. The right person situated in the right world with the right experience, observations and ambition could easily find much to expose. When some failed Silicon Valley web entrepreneur turns their bitter disappoint to revenge, we’ll get an ebook that dishes on Sheryl Sandberg, her house and its construction techniques that is every bit as memorable as the scenes from Bonfire and People Like Us.

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