Smart and socially gifted, Adam and Cynthia Morey are perfect for each other. With Adam’s rising career in the world of private equity, a beautiful home in Manhattan, gorgeous children, and plenty of money, they are, by any reasonable standard, successful. But for the Moreys, their future of boundless privilege is not arriving fast enough. As Cynthia begins to drift, Adam is confronted with a choice that will test how much he is willing to risk to ensure his family’s happiness and to recapture the sense that the only acceptable life is one of infinite possibility. The Privileges is an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and guided above all else by their epic love for each other.
About the Author
Jonathan Dee is the author of four novels, most recently Palladio. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper's, and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.
Read an Excerpt
A wedding! The first of a generation; the bride and groom are just twenty- two, young to be married these days. Most of their friends flew in yesterday, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good- natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogates into the world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel proudly unready. They are adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults. Last night’s rehearsal dinner ended with the overmatched restaurant manager threatening to call the police. The day to come shapes up as an unstable compound of camp and import. Nine hours before they’re due at the church, many of them are still sleeping, but already the thick old walls of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club seem to hum with a lordly overenthusiasm.
Mid- September. Since Labor Day, the western half of Pennsylvania has been caught in a late and dispiriting heat wave. Cynthia wakes up in her mother’s house, in a bed she’s awakened in only five or six times in her life, and her first thought is for the temperature. She pulls on a t- shirt in case anyone else is awake, passes her burdensome stepsister Deborah (never Debbie) sleeping in flannel pajamas half on and half off the living room couch, and slides open the door to the deck, from which she can see in the distance a few limp flags on the golf course at Fox Chapel. Cool, tolerably cool anyway, though it’s still too early to tell anything for sure. It can’t even be seven yet, she thinks. Not that she’s worried. The specter of her bridesmaids holding beer bottles to their foreheads to cool off, or of Adam wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he promises himself to her, only makes her smile. She’s not the type to fold if things don’t go perfectly; what matters most to her is that the day be one that nobody who knows her will ever forget, a day her friends will tell stories about. She turns and heads back indoors, past her own fading footprints in the heavy dew on the cedar planks of the deck.
She never imagined a wedding in Pittsburgh, because she never had any reason to imagine it until her mother remarried and moved out here two years ago. To the extent she’d pictured it at all, Cynthia had always assumed she’d be married back in Joliet Park: but in the middle of her last semester at Colgate she learned that her father had sold their old house there, in which he had not lived for a long time; and when she announced her engagement two months later her mother Ruth went off on one of her unpacifiable jags about Cynthia’s stepfather Warren being “a part of this family” and would not stand for any implication that this was less than entirely true. To force- march these outsize personalities back to the scene of the family’s dissolution in Joliet Park, to listen to them bitch over the seating chart and over old friends whose post- divorce allegiances were sometimes painfully ambiguous, was out of the question. It would have been a gruesome sort of nostalgia, and pointless at that. A wedding is rightfully about the future if it is about anything at all.
They could have married in New York—where Cynthia and Adam already shared an apartment—and in fact that was the arrangement Adam gently pushed for, on the grounds, typically male, of maximum simplicity. But the truth was that that wouldn’t have seemed unusual enough to Cynthia, too little distinct from a typical Saturday night out drinking and dancing with their friends, just with fancier clothes and a worse band. She wasn’t completely sure why the idea should appeal to her at all—the big schmaltzy wedding, the sort of wedding for which everyone would have to make travel plans—but she didn’t make a habit of questioning her wants. So Pittsburgh it was. Adam shrugged and said he only cared about making her happy; her father sent her a lovely note from wherever he was living now, implying that the whole idea had been his to begin with; and Warren expressed himself by opening up his checkbook, a consequence, to tell the truth, of which Cynthia had not been unmindful.
She tiptoes past the couch to avoid waking Deborah, because waking her might cause her to speak, and on one’s wedding day there are some trials one ought to be spared. They don’t know each other that well, but little things about Deborah excite Cynthia’s derision as though they have lived together for years. The flannel pajamas, for instance: she is two years older than Cynthia but so congenitally chilly that she and Ruth might as well be roommates at the old folks’ home. The house was bought with a second life in mind, a life in which the children were grown and gone, which explains why there is only one spare bedroom. Though the couch looks gratifyingly uncomfortable, Cynthia considered a campaign to pack Deborah off to the Athletic Club with all the other guests, so that her maid of honor and best friend, Marietta, could stay at the house instead. But family obligations are perverse. It makes no sense at all that this palpably hostile sexless geek should be one of her bridesmaids, and one of Cynthia’s many close friends’ feelings hurt as a result; yet here she is.
In the kitchen Ruth, Cynthia’s mother, whose last name is now Harris, is drinking a cup of tea standing up, in a green ankle- length bathrobe she holds closed at the neck. Cynthia passes her and opens the refrigerator without a word. “Warren’s out,” Ruth says, in answer to a question it would not occur to Cynthia to ask. “He went to get you some coffee. We only keep decaf in the house, so he went out specially for you.”
Cynthia scowls at the effrontery of decaf coffee, a fetish of the old and joyless. Tossing a loaf of bread on the counter, she stands on tiptoe to search the cupboard where she remembers the ancient jams are kept; then, feeling her mother’s gaze, she turns her head to look back over her shoulder and says, “What?”
It’s the underwear: the fact that she is parading around in it, but also the underwear itself, the unhomeliness of it, the fact that her daughter has grown into a woman whom it pleases to spend a lot of money on underwear. Shameless is the word for it. All Ruth wants is a little gravitas for today of all days, a proper sense of nervousness or even fear, which she might then think of some way to allay. One last moment of reliance. But no: it became clear weeks ago that all this was no rite of passage into womanhood for her daughter— it’s a party, a big party for her and all her friends, and she and Warren are just there to pick up the tab. For the last six or eight years, nearly every sight of her daughter has caused a certain look to cross Ruth’s face, a look of just- you- wait, though the question “wait for what?” is not one she could answer and thus she keeps her mouth shut. The flatness of Cynthia’s stomach, the strength and narrowness of her hips, more than anything the way she carries herself with such immodesty in a body whose nearness to the modern ideal is bound to provoke an unpredictable range of response: self- satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights onto the record.
But she reprimands herself; today, no matter who cares to deny it, is not just any day. She feels the faint echo of her own terror in the hours before her first wedding, a terror that was partly sexual, which counts as a bond between them even though her daughter’s sexuality is a subject she has long since lost the fortitude to go near. “So,” she says, trying for a conciliatory tone. “This is your special day.” And Cynthia turns around, mouth open, and laughs—a laugh Ruth has heard before, the only solace for which is a retreat into memories of when her only child was a baby.
Behind them, the digital clock on the microwave blinks silently to seven- thirty. In the living room, Deborah, having woken herself with her own snoring, makes a little groaning sound that no one hears and pushes her face deeper into the gap between the cushions and the sofa back. At the Athletic Club, the weekend desk clerk consults the computer printout in her hand and dials the extension for Adam’s room. She’s seen the Daily Events schedule and recognizes his name as that of the groom; to the scripted wake- up greeting at the top of the printout she adds best wishes of her own, because she saw him last night and he’s cute.
“Thanks,” Adam says, and hangs up. He too goes straight to the window to check the weather. His window faces the alley, though; he’ll probably get a better sense of the day’s prospects from the TV. He turns it on with the sound down but then lies back on the bed, fingers laced behind his head, and forgets to watch.
He hates sleeping alone and maybe for that reason he spent the minutes before the phone rang in an extravagant dream, a dream about driving a car with no steering wheel in it, a car that responded to his slightest weight shifts, like a skateboard or a sled.
One hour until breakfast in the hotel restaurant with his parents and his younger brother and best man, Conrad. Having thought of this, he tries to forget it again so that he can be genuinely blameless if he shows up late. He’s a little hung over from the rehearsal dinner, though others, he reflects, will have cause to be a whole lot more hung over than he. Too early to call Cynthia, who’s probably still asleep. What would really calm him down is sex with her—as it is he starts most mornings that way; it scatters the vague anxieties with which he wakes—but today that’s not going to happen. With sudden inspiration he arches his back and pounds on the wall above his headboard, the wall his room shares with the room where Conrad is staying.
Conrad doesn’t hear; up for an hour already, he is standing in the shower practicing his toast. It was the only duty that gave him any pause at all when he accepted the best- man role. He blushes and shakes whenever he has to speak in public; and how relatively easy it would be to pull this off in front of a ballroom full of strangers, as opposed to friends and family with their license for pitiless longterm teasing, people before whom there is no question of pretending even for a few minutes that he is anyone other than who he is. “They are a charmed couple,” he says, because this is a phrase over which he’s stumbled in earlier rehearsals; and it’s too late now for a rewrite. “They are a charmed chouple. Fuck.” And he starts from the beginning.
Waking in the other rooms on the second and third floor of the Athletic Club are friends of the bride and groom—couple friends, friends who have brought especially serious or promising dates— almost all of whom find themselves acting, at that hour, on a sexual impulse that’s unsettlingly strong even for the bloom of youth. Some are laughing, and some stare into their partners’ eyes with an urgency the memory of which will have them avoiding each other’s gaze an hour later. They are not used to the licentiousness of hotel rooms; and the knowledge that on this particular weekend they have not just infiltrated this stuffy club but taken it over gives a subterraneous group sense to each intimate encounter, a sense of orgy that makes them want to offend strangers, to exert themselves until the walls of that place come down.
Indeed there is one couple that knocks the headboard against the wall behind Adam’s parents’ bed so loudly that his mother just prays she doesn’t know them. She even tells her husband to call the front desk and complain, but he’s in the bathroom and hears, as a rule, what he chooses to hear.
At eight- thirty Marietta’s car rolls into the Harrises’ driveway. Inside the kitchen she and the still undressed Cynthia kiss like sisters; “Jesus, it’s fucking hot out there,” Marietta says. “Oh hi, Mrs. Sikes. I mean Mrs. Harris!” It’s more than Ruth can bear; she smiles premonitorily and withdraws from the kitchen.
“So shall we go do the hair thing?” Marietta says, but then all of a sudden Deborah is in the doorway, hair matted, face pebbled from the rough upholstery of the couch, looking at them both with tribal hatred.
“Your phone’s ringing,” she says to her stepsister, and turns and leaves.
The phone is on the bedroom floor, underneath the jacket Cynthia wore to the rehearsal dinner. Marietta follows her through the living room.
“Thanks for bringing it to me, there, Debski,” says Cynthia, though Deborah has disappeared into the bathroom. “So, you didn’t bring your dress? Where is it?”
“In the freezer,” Marietta says.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. Haven’t you heard? It’s my Special Day.”
“Well, that’s my point. You’re the bride. Still well within your power to change the whole dress code to, like, beach casual.”
“Wear a tank top to your own wedding, slut,” Cynthia says.
“That’s not how we roll here in Pittsburgh.”
“I’ve got that not- so- fresh feeling,” Marietta says. “That’s all I’m saying.”
In his chair watching CNN as they pass behind him, Warren hears all this and, though he would still like to be a kind of father to this young woman, knows that for the moment the only dignified course is to pretend that he is not even in the room at all.
Cynthia smiles at Marietta and takes the phone out on the deck. “Isn’t this bad luck?” she says, sliding the door shut behind her.
“I saw your dad in the lobby last night,” Adam says. “I recognized him from his picture. He seemed in pretty good form. Have you called him yet?”
“No,” she says, and her heart races a little bit. “I will in a while. Hey, what time is it?”
“Quarter to four.”
“Very funny. I mean aren’t you supposed to be at breakfast with your parents?”
“Well don’t leave Conrad alone with them, for God’s sake. You know how they get. Plus he’s got the rings so let’s not antagonize him.”
Adam smiles, waiting for the elevator in the empty hotel corridor. “Can you believe we’re doing this?” he says.
The boards on the deck are already burning her feet. “Not too late to back out,” she said, “if that’s why you’re calling.”
“Well, I still have seven hours to think about it, right?”
“Me too. Tell you what, if I’m not there by, let’s say, ten of four, you just go ahead and assume I’m not coming, okay?”
“Fair enough. Seeing how everything’s paid for and all, if you don’t show I’ll just wave one of the bridesmaids up and marry her.”
“Which one you have your eye on?”
There is a pause. “I missed you when I woke up this morning,” he says.
Her view of the golf course from earlier that morning has now been erased by haze. She closes her eyes. “Me too,” she says. “You won’t forget pictures, right?”
“Two- fifteen in the Trophy Room. Conrad’s carrying around a little schedule.”
“Okay,” she says. “See you then. Enjoy your last few hours of freedom.”
“Gotta go,” he says. “The hookers are here.”
She hangs up on him, smiling. In the living room, Marietta stands uncomfortably, while Deborah, back on the couch, watches her like a guard dog, like some emissary from the underworld of the socially damned. Marietta can read her hatred only as jealousy, which softens her own attitude a bit.
“So,” she says, and remembers that Deborah is a graduate student somewhere, in something. “School is good?”
Adam strolls into the hotel dining room and sees that his parents, sitting with a stricken- looking Conrad, have ordered their breakfast but not touched it. They missed their connection in New York yesterday and arrived too late to make it to the rehearsal dinner, which may have been just as well. He kisses his mother on the top of her head. “How’s your room?” he asks. “Everything to your liking?” Adam’s father makes a sarcastic noise, which his mother recognizes and preemptively talks over.
“Very nice,” she says. “Very comfortable. You have to point out Cynthia’s parents to me so we can say thank you.”
The two sets of parents have never met. There didn’t seem much point to it. “Marietta made it home okay last night?” Adam asks Conrad. Conrad nods but does not stop eating, because he would very much like to get this breakfast over with. Adam signals the waitress for coffee. He hasn’t really looked at either of his parents since he sat down. No one is looking at Mr. Morey, though he seems to be mysteriously gathering himself nonetheless, like a clock about to strike. Two heart attacks have hunched his shoulders in the way of a man much older than he actually is. Up in the room are four portable oxygen tanks, in case he needs them, and in the purse at his wife’s feet are various pills and phone numbers. But his short temper and unregulated resentments suggest that his physical failings are a kind of natural outgrowth of his personality, and everyone who knows him, mindful of his angry pride, is unsolicitous toward him. He is tormented by the efflorescence of foolishness and waste of all kinds, everywhere around him. He was a pipe fitter who became a full- time union executive until his disabilities forced him to retire. The Pittsburgh Athletic Club is exactly the kind of place that sets him off. His wife has made him put on a coat and tie for breakfast even though she will now have to hear about it for the next month.
But Adam is not embarrassed by them in this setting, as his brother is, because he doesn’t really associate them all that closely with himself anymore. He is amused by their helpless compulsion to be themselves, and will wind them up like a music box at any opportunity. “Hey, you know what I found in my room?” he says. “In the dresser drawer? A list of room rates. Did you guys see that? Do you have any idea what this place costs?”
“Oh, Adam, please,” his mother whispers, “today of all—”
“As it happens, I did,” his father says, reddening. “I’m just glad I’m not the sap paying for all this.”
“More reason to be glad we never had girls,” his mother says, and laughs as if she were being filmed laughing.
“That wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to me,” Mr. Morey says. “I don’t have to put on a show for anybody. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not.”
Adam abruptly stands up. “Oh look, there’s Mr. Sikes,” he says. “Excuse me. I’m gonna go practice calling him Dad.” And he crosses the room to where the bride’s dapper father sits at a table by himself, reading the paper. Conrad watches him leave in disbelief. His parents stare accusingly at each other. A moment later the waitress comes by and fills Adam’s coffee cup.
The doors to the hotel ballroom are shut, and behind them, in moments of silence, one can hear the vacuum cleaners run. Teenage girls in stiff black skirts walk from table to table, checking the place settings, counting on their fingers. They work slowly; the air conditioning is turned up all the way, and with the room not yet full of bodies it is exotically cold, the coldest place in the hotel. Only those most desperate for a cigarette pass through the double doors to the infernal kitchen and the steaming alley beyond.
At the hotel bar sits the wedding planner, habitually early, having sent her son and his friend to the florist’s in her van, praying they haven’t stopped to get high along the way. It’s why she doesn’t pay them in advance. The bar isn’t officially open yet but Masha knows everyone at the Athletic Club; this will be her fourth reception there this year. Though it’s before noon, she feels like (as her father used to say) a drink drink, and Omar the bartender would certainly comp her one, but while she’s on the job alcohol is out of the question. Something like that gets out and your reputation is shot. True, the bride—whose superior attitude Masha doesn’t especially care for— isn’t even from Pittsburgh and acts as if she might never set foot here again after today; but the stepfather, whose name is on the checks, is some rainmaker at Reed Smith, and the mother, whose superior attitude she doesn’t much care for either, is one of those chronically unsatisfied types who love nothing better than to nurse along some scandal, substantiated or otherwise.
But that’s the secret to Masha’s success: you get invested not in the people, who can let you down, but in the ceremony, which never does. She doesn’t say it out loud very often but she thinks of herself as a guardian of something, a finger in the dike holding back total indifference toward the few things that have always mattered, ritual and devotion and commitment. When you thought of it that way, the less you happened to care for the families themselves, the more noble your work became. Her own marriage ended after nine years, but that detracted in no way from the beautiful memory of her wedding day itself; in fact, that’s what you were left with, she thinks, that and a beloved if somewhat less than reliable son. Besides, if it were up to her they would all still be together, husband and wife and child, through happy and contentious times alike. But not everything is her decision.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do you think the author was ultimately trying to say about wealth and greed? Do you agree with him?
2. Adam and Cynthia have a bit of an obsession with leaving their pasts behind them. Do you think this serves them well? What about their children? Does it ultimately help or hinder them?
3. There are no specific references to dates in the novel, giving the story a sense that it is suspended in time. Why do you think the author chose to do that?
4. Did you find yourself able to sympathize with these characters throughout their rise? How important or necessary do you think it is for the reader to be able to do that?
5. There are many thematic elements in the plot: wealth, family, risk, love. Which resonated for you the most?
6. Would you describe Adam and Cynthia as amoral, or as having their own sort of morality? Is there a difference?
7. Many of Jonathan Dee's novels have been referred to as social critiques. Do you think he meant for The Privileges to be interpreted that way?
8. This book came out on the heels of a global financial meltdown. How do you think the characters would have fared in today's financial climate?
9. Jonas develops obsessionsunusual even for someone his agewith music and then with art. What do you think he's searching for?
10. The novel skips through time, with each chapter beginning a few years later than the previous one. Do you like this technique? Why do you think the author chose it?
11. What did you make of Cynthia's loyal attachment to her absent father?
12. April and Jonas respond to their family's enormous wealth in very different ways. Why do you think that is? And do you think either of them truly has the capacity to change at the end?
13. What do you think the next generation of Moreys (presuming there is one) will be like?
14. Do you think Adam and Cynthia got what they deserved in the end?
15. What does it mean, finally, to be privileged?