You would think we’ve had enough noise about investor fraud in the news to shy away from reading about the topic in our fiction. But this new thriller, ripped from the Bernie Madoff headlines, grabs attention that’s driven by that very familiarity. Early on, we know what’s going to happen — a Ponzi scheme exposed — but we don’t know how it’s all going to explode among the characters. That unknown, coupled with an insider’s view of Manhattan’s Upper East Side luxury culture, creates a time-ticking page-turner that unfolds Thanksgiving week, 2008.
Speaking of that insider’s view, The Darlings’ author, Cristina Alger, clocked in career time as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and an attorney at a Manhattan law firm. She was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of a major fund player who died in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. From the novel’s opening posh benefit event to conclusive confrontations at the New York Attorney General’s office, we get savvy, realistic details from someone who knows the ropes, the blue highways, you could say, of this cut-throat and tenacious high-finance terrain.
The novel begins with Morty Reis, founder of Reis Capital Management (RCM), ending his life at the Tappan Zee Bridge. The SEC is dangerously close to discovering RCM is nothing but fairy dust. His death unleashes a monumental scandal that hurls billionaire financier Carter Darling and his family into a limelight of regulatory investigation. The Darlings live the good life on Park Avenue and in the Hamptons, thanks to the family business, the enormously successful Delphic Fund that’s one-third invested in Morty’s RCM.
The day after Morty’s death, Paul, General Counsel at Delphic and husband to Carter’s daughter Merrill, gets a visit from the SEC, represented by his longtime friend, Alexa Mason. Alexa shares evidence of RCM’s Ponzi scheme with Paul, who’s blind-sided by the information, having only worked at Delphic a mere two months. She urges her friend to separate himself from the Darlings and inform on Delphic to protect himself. Alexa also shares what she knows about RCM with her uncle, who’s a journalist. Meanwhile, Carter’s lawyer Sol Penzell creates incriminating, backdated wire transfers to set up Alexa’s boyfriend at the SEC.
Alger skillfully maneuvers a complex web of characters that includes lawyers, journalists, fund managers and politicians. Of the two Darling daughters, Merrill is the smart one with a Harvard law degree. Her sister Lily is the IT Girl, whose shopping and social skills place her firmly in New York’s elite society. They and their parents are perfectly drawn to reflect the sacrosanct, privileged Upper East Side culture, a lifestyle that comes across as all-at-once desirable and yet unpalatable for its claustrophobic social demands and extraordinary financial requirements.
As Carter’s lawyer Sol works the holiday weekend to find a pawn to save the Delphic king, Merrill loses trust in her beloved father, realizing, “Nothing we have is real.” It’s not as much an epiphany for Merrill as an acknowledgement of a buried thought, a confessional wish for simplicity denied to her by the requirements of upper echelon New York society, a million-dollar apartment mortgage and 16-hour workdays. She wonders if she and Paul would be “happier somewhere quieter, less stressful, less competitive.”
Alger knows how to write a fast pace, moving us breathlessly through the holiday week with startling discoveries and unexpected alliances. Her debut is a satisfying novel, filled with many plot twists, each one as smart and surprising as the others. The Darlings is neither great nor memorable literature; however, it’s without a doubt excellent entertainment and a fascinating showcase of New York’s financial darlings.