Portions of the publicity blurbage for Cristina Alger's novel The Darlings read like they could belong to the kind of glitzy pulp that writers like Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz churned out for eager readers in the 1980s: "The Darlings is part family drama, part corporate thriller, and offers an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society — a world seldom seen by outsiders." But this isn't the Eighties. It's 2012, four years into the recession, a world colored by Main Street's demonization of high-echelon types. And when we meet the titular family on Thanksgiving eve of 2008, the Darlings and all in their inner circle are about to be up to their necks in Wall Street scandal, hounded and suspected by journalists, the SEC, their own consciences, and each other. As the stakes rise over the course of a long holiday weekend, mysteries build and fall like the breaking of waves, revealing the characters' unmistakable humanity.
"I didn't really intend to change public perceptions of those born into wealth or anything else," said first-time novelist Alger. "But I did hope to draw thoughtful, nuanced portraits of my characters, even those who might be easily vilified. As the financial crisis began to unfold, I became fascinated by what could possibly have motivated people to act as they did. In many cases, simple greed seemed too easy an answer: Many of those culpable were already wealthy and successful, and would have been so even if they had acted legally and ethically."
Alger provides a privileged peek into privilege, having grown up on Manhattan's Upper East Side herself, worked as an investment analyst for Goldman Sachs and a corporate attorney for WilmerHale (a firm that has represented everyone from internal investigators at Enron and WorldComm to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners known as "the Algerian Six"), and even worked for a family firm not unlike the hedge fund concern run by Carter Darling. Despite this home-team advantage, Alger chose an outsider as her narrative center: Paul Ross, Carter's son-in-law and the company's general counsel, but a man native neither to New York nor high society. "Paul, to me, is a proxy for the reader; through him, the reader can peer into this very closed, tight-knit family," Alger explained. "I myself felt the most in common with Paul."
Though she always dreamed of being a writer — and finds herself far more suited to writing than law — there are certainly things Alger, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland) on Wednesday, March 7, misses about her previous career. "I had very good health care. And I had someone to call when my printer broke or I wanted more pens." But the two jobs have more in common than you'd imagine: "I think both push you to think creatively, research diligently and be relentless in editing your own work," she said. "Both allow you to interact with very smart, engaging people. And both require a fair amount of discipline and a lot of late nights!" 7 p.m., free. 510-339-8210 or GreatGoodPlace.Indiebound.com