The artwork for the front cover of The Privileges by Jonathan Dee does the book a huge disservice. The picture leaves you wondering if you’ve picked up the literary equivalent of the tv show Gossip Girl. The one note on the front cover that says otherwise is a glowing quotation from none other than “America’s Great Novelist,” Jonathan Franzen. The funny thing is Franzen’s Freedom and Dee’s The Privileges tell similar types of stories about contemporary American families. The only differences is that Dee tells the story better, shaves off more than 300 pages, and manages to only piss off the reader on the very last page.
The Privileges is the story of Adam and Cynthia Morey and their kids April and Jonas. Opening at Adam and Cynthia’s wedding, the couple is charmed. They have been and throughout the story remain amazingly lucky. In the real world, Cynthia’s mid-book depression when the kids are not quite old enough for school would lead to greater trouble in the marriage than it does in Dee’s story. There is a similar flight of fancy when Adam manages to evade any SEC investigation into his investing success based on some not-so-public information. Thats not to say the story comes off the wheels because of these issues, but in a story so in tune with the way the world its characters occupy works, it is more obvious.
The book concludes around the time Jonas, the youngest child, is finishing up his undergrad at the University of Chicago. In 200 some odd pages, Dee covers nearly a quarter century of this families history. The only troubling aspect to Dee’s story is the manner in which he concludes it. I’m not the type of reader who needs or wants the story to end perfectly, sitting there, as if the author typed the last sentence and then put a bow on it. In the world that is this story, the characters keep living and most days, here in the real world, do not end neat. Things are unresolved. Issues unfinished. Errands to run and people to get back to. All of this is to say, I understand and appreciate a less than neat ending. However, Dee gives us a vertigo inducing last page.
While all four major characters get their wrap-up, it is Jonas whose conclusion is the last in the novel. The situation Jonas finds himself in is kind of zany, but at the same time it allows Dee to use art and creating as a way to talk about human nature. It is immediately after Jonas’ situation is resolved, on the last page, the Jonas on that page is nothing like the character we have seen throughout the story. If an editor had excised that last page, this book would have been great. Now, with almost two different versions of Jonas, it is just very good.
Still better than Freedom. The more I thought about it, the difference was that Dee sketches his characters’ histories with a lighter touch than Franzen, who seems deadset on providing a serious family tree for most characters while trying to push the story forward. Dee is also less caught up in providing the reader with every little detail about everything. The one difference I truly appreciated was Dee’s ability to tell a tale about contemporary America without feeling like he had to shoe-horn in major events in American history like the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the Bush Presidency/Obama campaign. For that, I say thank you to Mr. Dee.