A debut drama explores the bottomless greed and dysfunction that plague Wall Street.
In the wake of the 2008 financial catastrophe, Wall Street is badly hobbled and the bond market is all but nonexistent. Urban Bank in New York City is hit particularly hard by the crisis, and hungry for a financial product to sell. French-born Francine Dubois, a “walking spreadsheet” known for her encyclopedic storehouse of knowledge and quiet meticulousness, comes up with a brash idea: package wages into bonds just as was once done with mortgages, effectively collateralizing them, and reap the benefits from managing them as well as from their after-market value. Francine’s idea is an intriguing one, and she’s asked to draw up a plan and discover a client to jump aboard; she finds Verdinion Computers, a respected company whose imprimatur ensures the bonds will have a Triple A rating. But despite her tireless efforts and creativity in midwifing what comes to be known as “Bondage Bonds,” Francine is relegated to the sidelines, not given proper credit or compensation for her innovation. She decides to branch out on her own, partnering professionally and romantically with a successful trader, Matthew Dixon, and they open their own firm, Benoit Trading. Francine expands the company to include payrolls for civil servants in France, a risky move that leaves her vulnerable to disaster. And when the market too exuberantly embraces the bonds, and a new crisis eerily familiar to the last one looms imminently, she is the most obvious candidate to be chosen as a scapegoat.
Levey’s dramatization of Wall Street’s infinite avarice is ingeniously inventive, providing a scathingly astute commentary on the irrepressibility of capitalistic avarice. And no one is spared his gimlet-eyed scrutiny—even the bond ratings agencies are easily moved by their own myopically conceived self-interest. The author paints a vivid picture of a world too easily moved into a feeding frenzy: “A swelling sea of Bondage Bonds swept over the markets, and the sweet odor of fees and commissions seeped into the cloistered halls of American finance.” Francine is a fascinatingly complicated protagonist—restrained by an authentic sense of principle but not unmoved by the blandishments of material success, she walks a fine line between admirable ambition and reckless cupidity. The narrative includes a surfeit of highly technical jargon and will likely appeal most to those with a firm grasp and abiding interest in the inner machinations of the financial world. In addition, a plot turn toward the end of the tale that involves French terrorists seems overdone and implausible, unlike the rest of the novel. Levey’s writing is crisp and witty, though, and he avoids any easy moral judgments about his characters, allowing readers to experience them in all their vibrant complexity. The author’s first effort is a precocious one, characterized by unusual restraint and a sensitive attention to the moral frailty that even the noblest figures wrestle with.
A thoughtful and well-crafted look at the human stakes in high finance.