The great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin writes about members of a fictional elite family struggling to shape their individual identities.
When Roger Whitby Jr. dies, his many children from his first three marriages (family tree provided) discover that he has bequeathed the little left of the Whitby fortune to his fourth wife’s son, Nick, whom he adopted. Although the plot is ostensibly about inheritance, the older, barely fleshed-out nonheirs are remarkably nonchalant about getting nothing; only Shelley, from marriage No. 3, and Brooke, from No. 2, fear losing the family houses where they were raised and still live, though it seems unlikely that Nick, unreachable after having participated in an environmental protest gone awry, will be greedy. The true subject here, developed through memories of childhoods and marriages, is the ambivalent love Nick, Shelley, and Brooke feel for Roger, who abandoned each differently. By the time the 21-year-old Nick eventually shows up at 22-year-old Shelley’s Upper West Side brownstone, she is in a creepy sexual liaison with her new employer, Kamal, a blind Egyptian architect. Nick begins a romance with Kamal’s naïve, intellectual daughter, whom he involves in his Occupy Wall Street–type activity. Meanwhile, in Boston, 37-year-old nurse Brooke wants to keep her Beacon Hill house for the baby she’s conceived sleeping with a nouveau riche Italian-American to avoid acknowledging she might be gay. Brooke’s disdain for her sex-mate reflects Whitby snobbery and perhaps the author’s—Nick’s pointedly middle-class mother is also portrayed as crassly mercenary compared to Roger’s previous aristocratic wives, while Nick’s lefty friends are beyond the pale. Given the Whitby kids’ claims to shun their privileged advantages, the frequent references to fancy schools and Martha’s Vineyard vacations wear thin. The Whitbys increasingly come across as spoiled, self-absorbed, and ultimately trivial poor rich kids.
Roosevelt knows her terrain, but it remains unclear if she meant this family portrait to be as unflattering as it is.