Published: Aug 8, 2010
If you feel, as I do, that women are superior beings, it is painful to open a novel categorized as “chick lit.”
The authors generally write as badly as James Patterson. Their characters are shallow as glass --- given a choice between world peace and a new pair of Manolos, they’ll take the shoes, every single time. And their conflicts make “The Real Housewives of Whoville” look like Ingmar Bergman.
So I was delighted to read “The Recessionistas”, a first novel by Alexandra Lebenthal. [To buy it from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] Disclosure: I know her. We are both contributors to NewYorkSocialDiary.com. In December, if I am a good boy, I get to sit next to her at the site’s holiday lunch.
Lebenthal’s book is about a world I know well and she knows better: very rich people in Manhattan and the Hamptons. Standard chick lit setting. But the first thing that makes her novel more than chick lit is its time frame. It is set during those awful weeks in September, 2008, when Lehman Brothers melted down and billions of dollars in stock valuations were lost.
To be factual about it, investors did most of the losing, but they’re faceless, anonymous people who live on Main Street and have boring little lives, so there’s no point caring about them. The second-generation Masters of the Universe who worked at Lehman or had big deals with Lehman --- that’s another story. This story. Or, to be more precise, the story of the women married to those men.
The second reason this isn’t just chick lit is that Alexandra Lebenthal knows how Wall Street really works. She’s of those Lebenthals --- her father is the guy in the old TV commercials who urged you to buy… bonds. (Back then, you snored. Now you wish you had a batch of munis.)
Alexandra Lebenthal is President and CEO of Lebenthal & Co, and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Inc. A woman running anything on Wall Street --- your first reaction is to wonder if that’s a typo. The CEOs of only 15 Fortune 500 companies are female; compared to Wall Street, that’s huge. Wall Street is a boys’ club. Always has been. Probably always will be. Ms. Lebenthal had an edge --- her father --- but I’m sure she knows what it’s like to have men at meetings look right though her. She’ll never not be an outsider.
That’s how Sasha Silver feels in Lebenthal’s novel. She’s a Wall Street CEO. Or was. In 2005, she sold her company, Silver Asset Management, to BridgeVest Financial. It was a big deal, but it was the wrong deal. Her partners cashed out and retired, leaving her to be hassled and ignored by her owners. She has her satisfactions --- a loving if overly busy husband, good kids, big apartment and the aforementioned shitload of money. And she has something just as valuable: a good reputation.
Not that a good name means much these days.
In the fall of 2008, the game ended for most of the characters in this book. Lebenthal explains credit default swaps and tranches of mortgages so simply that her novel is a useful primer. Even better, she explains how it happens that men who earn as much as a million a year in salary live from bonus to bonus, financing this year’s excesses with a loan against next year’s spoils. When Lehman went out of business and the market tanked, so did their bonuses.
Grisgby Somerset, spoiled and stupid, refuses to believe it when her banker husband tells her they’re broke. She snaps at him: “Don't you dare talk to me in all these technical terms. It's your job to make sure we have enough money to live our lives. So I will continue living as we have and will expect the bills to be paid.”
The bills --- in this crowd, they’re not small. The schools, of course, are private, and cost $33,000 a year. Then there are the charity events. $1,000 a ticket --- but you’re nobody if you don’t buy a table for $10,000-50,000. Add clothes. And jewels. And the second house --- and the third. What’s the grand total for a year in The Life? In a riveting piece, Lebenthal did the math.
Blake Somerset is no dreamboat, but when you see what he’s signed up for, you really want --- well, I really want --- to smack his wife. Yes, Grigsby is that awful: disloyal wife, terrible mother, shallow friend. And she’s not the only horror show in these pages. With the exception of Sasha --- and an African-American woman who jumped from private school scholarships to a good college to Wall Street --- all the women of “The Recessionistas” are short-sighted and morally deficient.
I’m not sure that Alexandra Lebenthal intended to write a book that can be taken this seriously. Her alter ego does, after all, seem to like shoes and clothes and bling almost as much as the villains. And in addition to the occasional leaden metaphor, she’s tacked on one of those “where are they now?” endings that’s rushed and forced. Balzac did it better.
And yet this is a book Balzac would have enjoyed.
In the 1980s, for those who were busy elsewhere, New York Society was shocked when Michael Milken helped Henry Kravis, Saul Steinberg, Ronald Perelman and a handful of other socially unacceptable Jews get their hands on great fortunes. That new money laundered itself brilliantly; those men, and others like them, went on to give hundreds of millions to New York institutions. Now their names are on buildings.
Blake and Grigsby Somerset would get their names only on a wall of shame. Which is exactly why they’re so much fun to read about --- hating them is almost an act of civic virtue. I loved every minute of their spectacular fall.