Mendelsohn (American Music, 2010, etc.) tracks the slow and gruesome fall of an elite New York family caught up in the darker side of capitalism.
“All families are complicated,” Mendelsohn writes, “but because their connections constitute the primary reality that its members know, some families create a world that to them is more comprehensible than the world itself.” So it is with the Zanes, less a family than a dynasty, a self-contained empire unto themselves. But while the family pivots on Steve, real estate mogul and family patriarch, the novel swirls around the two young women dearest to him: his 17-year-old adopted daughter, orphaned after his beloved sister’s death, and the family nanny, a woman defined by her strength and haunted by her past. Poppy is a sylphlike beauty, precocious and lost; Neva is an outsider, a Russian woman sold into sex slavery as a child, now Steve’s unlikely confidante. On the surface, the two are opposites—Poppy is defined by her privilege, Neva by her lack of it—but, as the novel barrels toward its tragic conclusion, their lives overlap in unexpected ways. Extreme wealth is built on the backs of extreme exploitation, the novel argues, whether the people doing the exploiting know it or not. While the dark and twisting plot is heavy on brooding intrigue (international sex trafficking, incest), the book is sharpest when it’s dealing with more quotidian concerns (disappointment, aging). For all that they’re the focus of the book, Neva and Poppy—complicated as they are—never quite transcend their beautiful, heartbreaking types. Instead, the book gets its emotional heft from its supporting cast: Steve’s older daughter, Alix, unfulfilled and bitterly approaching middle age, may not be the heart of the novel, but she is its soul.
A family saga about the grotesque underbelly of wealth.