On the chilly afternoon the day before Thanksgiving, passersby along Manhattan’s 71st Street and Lexington Avenue are too busy to look twice at the black Mercedes station wagon waiting at the stop light. The man in the driver’s seat, financier Carter Darling, is too preoccupied with news of his business partner’s suicide to notice them either. But Carter would be wise to look out his windows and enjoy not meeting angry stares; this is one of the last times he—or any of the illustrious Darlings of New York City—will move unnoticed through the streets of Manhattan..
Downtown, Carter’s son–in–law Paul Ross is also reeling from Morty Reis’s suicide. Even before Paul married Carter’s daughter, Merrill, he was struck by how fiercely loyal his new family was, especially during hard times. This loyalty was on full display when Carter brought Paul on board at Delphic, the esteemed firm that’s made the Darlings one of the elite families in the city. Paul is certain that the Darlings will, as always, band together in the wake of this tragedy. But Paul has yet to realize that Morty’s suicide isn’t the worst they’ll endure.
In the suicide’s aftermath, Paul learns that Morty’s hedge fund is a sham, a black hole where scores of millions of dollars—including funds from Delphic—have disappeared. The allegations of monumental fraud and conspiracy, if true, could bring the financial world to its knees. As Delphic’s general counsel, Paul is one of the principal targets of the investigation. How could Delphic’s management not know that 30 percent of its investments is fake? Do they not verify where their money goes? As the evidence mounts, it becomes clear that Carter Darling isn’t what he seems. His reputation as a trusted business leader and squeaky–clean family man is merely an illusion—one that Carter is desperate to protect.
To avoid taking the fall for Carter’s wrongdoing, Paul must fight to keep his life and marriage from being torn apart. But could Merrill forgive him for turning against her father? And what will become of the Darlings once Carter’s secrets are exposed? Cristina Alger’s debut novel The Darlings takes us behind the closed doors of posh Park Avenue townhouses and million–dollar offices. At its heart is a family staring down its own demise. But the Darlings have far more to fear from each other than from the scandal that threatens to destroy them.
ABOUT CRISTINA ALGER
Cristina Alger received her BA from Harvard College and a law degree from New York University School of Law. She has worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and as an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr. She was born in New York City, where she currently resides.
A CONVERSATION WITH CRISTINA ALGER
Q. In a 2011 interview, Ruth Madoff, husband of convicted Ponzi–scheme perpetrator Bernard Madoff, presented a bleak picture of her life, quite similar to what Ines fears will happen to her. She says that she and her husband even attempted suicide (The New York Times, October 26, 2011). What are your personal feelings about how she and her family were treated by the press and their former friends? Is there any way she could have come through as a sympathetic character? Could Ines?
I found the Madoffs to be remarkably unsympathetic, and for that reason, utterly fascinating. I think that a lot of viewers tuned into that interview in the hopes of glimpsing Ruth Madoff’s humanity. I know I did. It’s easy to write her – or her husband – off as villains, but it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding her. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writingThe Darlings was trying to craft characters who evoke both sympathy and anger. I think in fiction, as in life, there are few true heroes and few true villains. Everyone has a bit of both in him.
Q. All of the characters have trouble striking a balance between their careers and their personal lives. Is it possible for people with high–level careers in investments or finance to maintain strong marriages and relationships?
I think it’s a real challenge. Maintaining a high–level career in finance require an enormous amount of time and focus, often at the expense of personal relationships. I see my friends struggle with it every day, particularly now that many of them are starting families. I do believe it’s possible, though; my parents did an incredible job of managing the demands of my father’s career while raising me. In retrospect, I think my father slept about four hours a night, and I imagine both he and my mother made innumerable untold sacrifices to make everything work. But somehow, my dad managed to eat dinner with me almost every night, and he never missed one of my lacrosse games. I always had the sense that as important as his career was to him, family came first.
Q. Manhattan is, more than simply a backdrop, almost a character in the story. What are the particular advantages and drawbacks to setting a novel there?
Manhattan is such a dynamic place; it’s got as much personality and inner life as any character. I’ve lived here my whole life. When writing about it, I felt as though I was writing about a family member: someone I love most of the time, occasionally despise, but in the end, someone to whom I am ferociously loyal. For the most part, that familiarity was an advantage. At times, though, I had to remind myself that Manhattan is many things to many people. It was a challenge to step back and try to see the city through the eyes of some of my characters.
Q. At several points in your novel, characters consider leaving New York—either to escape scandals or to live a more convenient, slower–paced life. Are there times you’ve considered leaving? If so, what’s prevented you from doing so? How has living in New York changed for you since the financial crisis began and since 9/11?
I have. For one thing, it’s a terribly expensive place to live. But the energy here is incredible; it’s infectious. I’ve never found anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. New Yorkers have such drive and intellectual curiosity, and also a certain mental toughness that I really respect. I thought the city showed remarkable resilience after 9/11, and it has again in the wake of the financial crisis. That’s what I love most about New York: it has the strength to pick itself up and dust itself off after the toughest blows.
Q. Merrill has a client named Elsa whose “suits were now designer . . . but they were just as short, and just as loud as they had been when she had first started at Vonn. . . . the guys on the team were too quick to judge her based on her appearance. This really got under Merrill’s skin.” (p. 108) What are the challenges that face women in the financial industry? Did you have any problems being taken seriously by your male coworkers?
I’ve been really fortunate when it comes to co–workers. But sure, there were times working in such a male–dominated environment was a challenge for me. For the first few years, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to wear. I think women are very conscious of being judged on the basis of their appearance, and especially at the beginning of my career, I lived in perpetual fear of not being taken seriously by the guys in my office. Unfortunately for me, that fear led to many years of unflattering pantsuits and sensible heels. It was only when I started proving myself that I branched out into skirts and the occasional stiletto.
Q. With which of your characters do you most identify and why? Were any of the characters more difficult to craft than others?
I probably identify most with Merrill, though I see glimmers of myself in many of the characters. Her struggle to create her own identity while still being a loyal and devoted family member is, to me, very relatable and real. Honestly, I feel as though the characters crafted themselves. Once I had a basic framework for the family, I sat down and started writing, and the characters just blossomed as I went. It was a really fun process.
Q. How have your colleagues and friends in finance reacted to your book? Are there any professional lessons they should take away from reading it?
The book isn’t out yet, so most of my friends and former colleagues haven’t had a chance to read it. I hope when they do they are able to identify with it, to say, “Yes! This feels real to me.” I tried to capture New York at a specific moment in time in a way that would feel authentic to those who had experienced it firsthand. I don’t know if there’s necessarily a professional lesson to be learned, but I did want to end the book on a positive note. I came out of the financial crisis with the hope that a new moral order would emerge from the wreckage. I think that remains to be seen, but The Darlings leaves the door open for change.
Q. What are some authors and books that have influenced your writing?
Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is to me, the quintessential New York book. It’s pitch–perfect in its portrayal of New York, and the financial community in particular. I read it more than once while I was writing The Darlings. I found similar inspiration in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. I also found myself reading a lot of financial nonfiction while writing The Darlings. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and James B. Stewart’sNew Yorker essay “Eight Days” come to mind as exceptionally well researched and well written works that influenced my writing. Both were useful as background, but more important, they highlighted how exciting and dramatic the world of finance can be. Financial crime can be either terribly dry or spellbinding subject matter; it’s up to the author to capture the reader’s interest and not let go until the last page.
Q. What do you consider to be the central theme of your book?
To me, The Darlings is really about family and identity. I think figuring out who you are and what you believe in, especially in relation to your family, is one of the primary challenges of adulthood.
Q. The Darlings is your first novel. What were some challenges you faced, either expected or unexpected, while writing it? What led you to writing a novel? Are you writing anything now?
I think the biggest challenge for me has been opening myself up to the concept of public scrutiny. I’ve got a terribly thin skin, and any member of my family can tell you that I take any sort of criticism to heart. So it’s been a big leap for me to put myself out there. I’m still adjusting to it and to be honest, I probably won’t ever feel fully comfortable with having my work available for all to judge. But I absolutely love what I do and it’s a very small price to pay for the privilege of getting to write all day long. I am working on a second novel now. I feel a bit like Sisyphus starting all over again at the bottom of the hill, but I’m starting to fall in love with my new characters the way I did with the Darlings.
- Explain what the author means by, “The Darlings were people of privilege, and people of privilege was what they would remain, no matter what the cost.” (p. 127) What do you think are the must–haves or must–dos for people like the Darlings? Which aspects of their privileged life sound alluring? Which don’t?
- Paul feels somewhat trapped in the life that he thought he wanted so badly when he married Merrill. In what ways has marrying into the Darling family been a blessing and a curse?
- Describe the relationship—professional and socially—between Duncan and Marina. How is it mutually beneficial? How does their relationship change over the course of the novel?
- Ines laments what her life will be like after the scandal: “She would make a lifetime of avoiding the people she had once worked so hard to befriend. Even getting coffee at the deli around the corner would be a gauntlet run. She would have to wear a hat and slip in and out, unnoticed.” (p. 217) Are Ines’s fears of being ostracized well founded? Do you believe she had any inkling what her husband was up to? What are ways that she could have stopped things from getting out of hand?
- Who is the hero in this novel? Why?
- Lily has “accepted her mother’s determination that Merrill was smart and Lily was pretty.” (p. 40) How has Ines’s determination affected each of her daughters’ lives? Compare their reactions to their family’s tragedy.
- Schadenfreude is the enjoyment we obtain from the troubles of others. The Darlings know their story will be a media sensation. Why do we love watching famous, wealthy, or powerful people fall from grace? What are some recent examples? How is the media helpful in scandals such as the one described here? How is it harmful?
- Yvonne says, “They were willing to sell out family, to save themselves. That’s a line that I just don’t ever want to cross.” (p. 294) What do you think of her sentiment? How would your opinion of her change if Paul hadn’t been implicated and she allowed someone else to take the fall? What were her true motives for giving information against her employer? Were her motives noble?
- Denial is a theme that runs through The Darlings. Paul hoped that “with time and a little distance, the complications of the past might slip away.” (p. 78) At Thanksgiving dinner, they move Morty’s empty chair “all the way down to the basement, completely out of sight” (p. 187). What are other instances in the novel where characters deny or avoid a problem? What are times when characters address problems head–on? How are the outcomes different?
- How do you think Carter’s and Ines’s descriptions of their marriage might differ? According to Ines, she stayed married to Carter so their daughters would grow up having everything she didn’t. What are some other reasons she might have stayed in a failed marriage?
- When she actually gets a chance to be a journalist, Marina finds new purpose and new energy. Who are some other characters who might have benefited from meaningful work? Who among the characters are the hardest workers?