Thursday, May 05, 2011

Review: The Social Climber's Handbook

In The Social Climber's Handbook by Molly Jong-Fast the first words spoken by the central character are "I love you." Daisy Greenbaum, a super-rich Upper East Side mom with charming twins named Easton and Avery, a Master-of-the-Universe husband named Dick, a Polish maid named Nina, and a glorious apartment at 740 Park seems to have it all. This being a black comedy, however, Daisy Greenbaum has a secret. On the down low she is -- how else does one say this? -- a highly efficient serial killer, bloodily dispatching any and all who impede her family's social advancement. She also volunteers at several soup kitchens. But at what cost? "The sheer facts of her life, the murders, the constant status anxiety, all of it had made her a sliver of the person she had once been," Jong-Fast writes.

The romantic balance between the principal characters is slightly off kilter in this Park Avenue tale, as you might imagine. While the first words spoken by Daisy are "I love you," her Master-of-the-Universe husband, Dick, significantly fails to reciprocate the sentiment. You see: the king of the prop desk at The Bank has to wake up in a little over seven hours and deal with the unfolding '08 crash that he and his brethren, one cannot fail to note, hath wrought in the first place.

Besides, Dick has a wandering eye. His mistresses, one year apart, are Lady Smith Kingsley and one self indulgent, one dimensional blogger named Candy Rose Ross ("she knew she would one day be famous. It wasn't a question; it was her inner truth"). He communicates with them through his BlackBerry, to the great annoyance of the long-suffering Daisy. Somerset Maugham once said that in any relationship "there's always one who loves, and one who lets himself be loved." It is clearly Daisy who loves more in this relationship. She also deeply loves the life that they have made for each other on Park Avenue. In the state of nature, murder among apex predators -- and what else are we to call them? -- is not at all unusual. Blame Darwin.

Propelling this story is the economy. The decline of the American economy is driving Daisy and Dick and even poor Lady Smith Kingsley and her amoral husband to do drastic, desperate things. Their reptile brains develop increasingly erratic strategies to hold onto the glitzy trappings -- the G5's, the expensive bags, the $40,000 curtains. In many ways the characters are mere reflections of the soulless economic system that they inhabit, where debt is simply written off to future generations. On Wall Street they have a saying: IBGYBG -- "I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone." And the working and middle classes will handle the bailouts.

Molly Jong-Fast, a cool Upper East Side mom of three with a financier husband, knows the terrain and is gifted with an eye for acute social observation as well as being possessed of a razor-sharp wit. The title of the book, The Social Climber's Handbook, is a play on the relentless social mountaineering, the keeping up of appearances that goes on in the 10021 zip code. Throughout this entertaining book there are sly, delicious references and representations of the New York scene at the turn of the millennium. Each chapter, for example, is headed with the date and where the Dow and S & P closed on that day in history. The financial history roughly coincides with the slapstick narrative of this black comedy as it comes barreling towards its conclusion. All chapters are bound by financial time except for the epilogue, where all secrets are at once revealed.

The sharp social observations don't stop there. Daisy's first murder involves a frenemy in the high-stress Mean Girls environment that is fat camp decades ago. There is an Upper East Side star-fucker shrink in a supporting role. There are familiar echoes of Bernie Madoff in the person of Sir Smith Kingley, whose Ponzi scheme is about to come undone, but would probably turn himself in to the Feds for a fried egg sandwich. There are ambitious bloggers -- Trip, financial; Candy, sex -- who live in Brooklyn who do the scene ("It had been the usual new-media scene: bloggers, urban hipsters, MFA students, a few old weirdos, some advertising guys in suits, a couple of die-hard alcoholics, and painters looking for free drinks and loose underage girls") looking to climb the social ladder on the backs of the corruptions of the Masters and Mistresses of the universe. Ouch!

Finally, the Social Climber's Handbook is deliciously funny, but also quite smart. The razor-sharp social observations alone make this better than probably any other book you will be taking to the beach this summer. The real private cruelties -- those between a husband and wife, those between a husband and his mistress, those between friends at camp and between lovers in the quiet of their bedroom -- are infinitely more brutal than any of Daisy's murders. So what's a few dead bodies if we can arrive together at that sound conclusion?

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