Ramona Ausubel wasn’t raised to contend with the weight of wealth: her maternal grandfather declined to take over the family steel business. Her grandmother turned their tony estate into a writers’ colony. Soon, the money was a memory.
“I feel like I have this lucky little spot, in that I didn’t grow up with the freedom or burden of the money itself but the stories of being from a family that believes in itself,” she says. “A family that keeps saying, ‘We have a voice, and we want to use that voice for something of value,’ instead of just being important because you have lots of numbers in your bank account.”
No similar favors are done for Fern and Edgar Keating, the young rich protagonists of Ausubel’s sophomore novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. Her people are old money; his parents are nouveaux riches. The collective largess has bought them two handsome homes: one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they and the children live year-round, and one in Martha’s Vineyard, where they summer.
“His had been a wished-for life, something viewed by everyone else from a great distance, and to voice even one experience of difficulty, of loneliness, was not welcome,” Ausubel writes. “Being rich had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool. So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.”
On Labor Day weekend, 1976, Fern and Edgar learn that the money is gone. Her parents have unexpectedly died and depleted the family fortune. His parents will aid them only if Edgar agrees to abandon his dream of becoming a novelist to join the family steel business in Chicago.
“This book is about the things money can get you and the things that it can’t,” Ausubel says, “and the burdens and freedoms of human relationships. It’s also about adventure and setting off to discover whatever it is that might save you from your current lot.”
As Ausubel vividly illustrates, the lots differ vastly for the men and women of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.
“One of the parts of writing the book that excited and interests me was watching these characters push away from their prescribed roles,” Ausubel says. “The men feel they are supposed to carry forward, continue to build the wealth, and be in that churning system of money, where the women aren’t meant to do anything ever again, except for produce lovely children and keep the display of wealth."
The decision to ensure the family’s future is clearly Edgar’s. Fern’s role is to impel him to act in their best interest.
“Everyone had smiled at her, predicting her future: four children, a lifetime of parties, the yearly vacation, a long retirement and a quiet death, announced in the same newspaper as the wedding would be (a good woman saw her name in the paper three times: when she was born, when she was married and when she died; she should otherwise make no news),” Ausubel writes. “All according to plan, the guests’ smiles had said. Fern had felt something turn in her stomach.”
She, like her husband, yearns for something more: professionally, personally, psychically, physically. Unbeknownst to one another, Fern and Edgar set out on parallel voyages of self-discovery. (They leave the same day, inadvertently leaving nine-year-old Cricket and her younger brother, twins Will and James, home alone in Cambridge to fend for themselves). The choice to accept or reject wealth is thereby subordinated by the choice to accept or reject each other.
“The display of love and affection is similar to wealth [insomuch as] you’ve got to stay within these very clear boundaries of marriage, what that means, and what it should look like from the outside,” Ausubel says. “Meanwhile, you’re living this inner life that might be completely at odds with that. So what does it mean to try to be true to yourself? And what does love turn into for you, when you’re being true to yourself?—what does wealth and your role in the world turn into? That authenticity of the self, attainable in both spheres, is what I’m watching out for.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.