The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus, review by Bruce Jacobs
One doesn't have to respect a book's principal characters to appreciate the story. In Sophie McManus's admirable first novel, The Unfortunates, the pettiness of the privileged and their sense of entitlement take center stage. McManus gets all the details right and nails the overbearing philanthropist matriarch, Cecilia "CeCe" Somner; her son, George, an opera librettist dilettante; his former coat-checker (now part-time condo realtor) wife, Iris; and CeCe's distant, lesbian daughter, Patricia. In her late 70s, CeCe suffers from a degenerative disease that threatens her micro-management of the fund-raising social events that once filled her calendar. Her illness prompts her stay at the tony Institute for Clinical Research campus, where she berates nurses and doctors while desperately hoping an experimental treatment will slow her disease's pace. There, upstate from her 40-room "cottage" on Long Island Sound, she frets about George's failure to visit, sends detailed domestic assignments to her long-time housekeeper and reminisces about her failed marriages and the tainted sources of her ancestral wealth.
CeCe doesn't approve of much and especially dislikes the confinement caused by her encroaching palsy. She goes from ordering around the waitstaff at a yacht fundraiser ("set yourself to extracting those Brazil nuts from the mix. No one ever wants a Brazil nut.... Bartenders, we will not serve anything with a straw") to trying to fill empty hours at the clinic. George, however, has been under her critical thumb for so long and is so dependent on her deliberately limited financial support that he barely manages an undemanding foundation job, where he idly scribbles at what he believes is a breakthrough modern opera. When it fails to attract any established New York company, he finances its production with heavy loans backed only by the bank's assumption that his mother will make them good. Miffed at his failure to visit her, she doesn't. The opera is a disaster (CeCe describes it as "a train hitting a merry-go-round... like the very incarnation of an atrocity"), and George loses his money and job as he retreats into delusional isolation. In debt and hounded by bill collectors, Iris sells their Somner heirloom jewelry and antiques, and invests their meager savings with George's former classmate's private equity fund--just before it is charged with securities fraud. It would appear that this financially fortunate family's follies turn them into "unfortunates" indeed.
But McManus knows the wealthy well. When the Somner backs are to the wall, their money salves a lot of wounds. As outsider Iris discovers about the rich, "when they lose their money, they've only misplaced it." The Unfortunates is an irresistible novel about old money and the sometimes wayward, sometimes admirable behavior of those who have it. The Somners are an upsetting lot, but as Iris says about a disturbingly graphic novel she is trying to read: "It's a book. The more upsetting the better."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.