I've spent most of my life resenting the one percent -- specifically, those living off the fruits of vast family inheritance, hedge funds, and other less industrious and sometimes nefarious methods of gaining wealth. If that offends, I'm not sorry. You could blame it on my communist father. You could blame it on jealousy. You could blame it on a stiff dose of working-class pride. All of the above would be true.
Or, you could blame it on intellectual laziness; the fact that I'm convinced the rich live and breathe in a totally different stratosphere, clueless to the concerns of those of us closer to the bottom of the income gap. Yet after reading Ramona Ausubel's new novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, I'm forced to reconsider my position. Like all great fiction, Ausubel's story of a once-wealthy couple's plunge into poverty has gifted me with empathy toward characters I would likely disdain in real life.
I'm not sure if Ausubel, who lives in the Bay Area, was raised in a wealthy family herself. (In this interview, she hints that her family was once wealthy but lost their money.) Whatever her background, she has a stealthy insight into the complicated nature of judgements around money and class, and the easy generalizations inherent therein. In the same interview, Ausubel addresses how wealth and poverty too easily become "weird, mythic realms" where real people are flattened by that which is projected onto them:
But that difficulty, that fear, ended up being a big driver for me while writing Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. Does being impoverished make us more valuable emotionally? Are we allowed only one at a time, material wealth or emotional wealth? That seems problematic for lots of reasons. How rich does a person have to be to cease to deserve empathy? This disconnection is dehumanizing, and it turns both wealth and poverty into these weird, mythic realms.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty tells the story of Fern, Edgar, and their respective families. Married with three children, they live in New England; both were born rich. Neither has had to work, in the truest sense, though Edgar spends years writing a loosely disguised autobiographical novel about a son who disavows his industrialist father's legacy. The novel's opening sentences are a perfect introduction to the ease and plenty that surrounds the family.
Summer fattened everybody up. The family buttered without reserve; pie seemed to be everywhere.
With one phone call, everything changes. It turns out that Fern's family money -- the wealth that paid for the summer house, the fine house back home, the expensive Swedish furniture -- it's all gone, given away to various charities by Fern's migraine-plagued father at the end of his life. There is a Plan B, though: Edgar could return, chastened, to his father, and ask to take the helm at Keating Steel, the very destiny he's spent his life running from (but not running fast enough to prevent him from accepting gifts of money and material items from his parents).
Thus begins a story of familial ties, old money versus new money, and what happens when the known world is stripped of its foundation. The old money/new money aspect of the story, to me, is one of its most fascinating layers. Fern comes from old money, "so old they only remembered the broad strokes of its origin (rum, cotton, slaves)."
"Members of Fern's Old Money family had met George Washington, served as senators and international ambassadors, seeded the burgeoning lands with their sons and daughters and cotton crops, tended to those children and crops with slave labor, a fact that they had ceased to mention by the times Fern's generation had come along. The truest luxury of long-term wealth was that no one in the family thought about money anymore. As if comfort was joined with the Westwood cells. They had not learned anything new for a hundred years and no one went to college in order to get a job -- instead they went to learn for the sake of learning, to deepen their reservoirs of language, culture, philosophy, art. They spent a significant amount of time giving money away."
Fern's mother is a gifted sculptor, resentful of the binds of marriage and motherhood. She buys her way out of caring for her children, hiring others to cook, clean, and raise her two twin children. Fern's father is often sick, hidden away from the family while he suffers excruciating migraines. In short, they are emotionally absent parents. As a result, Fern and her twin brother Ben depend solely on each other for emotional bolstering. It's a dependence that becomes fraught when Fern later abandons Ben in favor of her new husband and family.
Edgar's family, on the other hand, comes from new money. Edgar's mother first tries to follow the staid and strict rules set by the old moneyed class. Eventually -- in a moment that surprisingly left me cheering for her -- she realizes she'll never be truly accepted as one of them, and dives headfirst into an ostentatious lifestyle of reveling in the luxuries (private islands, fancy cars, mansions) afforded her by her industrialist husband's massive income.
It's all Edgar knows, and it's all that he hates.
Even though Edgar's family had once been poor, poverty for Edgar was impossible to imagine. Money was both disgusting and ever-present. He hated it but he did not know how to live without it. The puritanical New Englanders around him in Cambridge were just as rich but spent very little, watched the accumulating numbers in the bank account. They saved, drove older cars, wore their clothes for twenty years, the children only seeing the spoils of their family wealth when someone died. To them, Edgar probably looked frivolous, garish, but Edgar would have explained his purchases differently -- he thought of spending as getting rid of money. The things he acquired had been secondary. He had an expensive English car, but look at those thousands of dollars he had spread out into the winds. He had managed to turn his money back into metal, back into mineral. And anyway, he hated expensive things so owning them was a kind of punishment. To him, his parents were the frivolous ones -- not only owning but enjoying their spoils. He disbelieved everything they loved. Edgar's intentions were entirely different from his parents', though to someone on the outside, his life was nearly indistinguishable from theirs.
Can Edgar live without the ease of wealth? Can Fern? When the money goes, they are forced to grapple with these questions as reality -- not as thought experiments, or as a mouse toy batted around by a bored cat. (This has been Edgar's approach throughout his life: spouting Karl Marx to amused parents, befriending coal miners, joining the military but returning to the comforts of wealth as soon as possible). Both end up impulsively taking off on "voyage cures" to escape their new reality, each thinking the other is at home with the children. As a result, nine-year-old Cricket and her two little brothers must fend for themselves for days, abandoned accidentally by their clueless parents. The children are forced to survive in a way their parents never had to, with no safety net, no familial protection.
The whole story is written in beautiful, sometimes poetic prose. And, as mentioned above, left me with a heart somewhat bigger toward a class of people for whom I don't generally feel empathy. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a reminder that it's easy to demonize someone when you see them as an alien. It's easy to demonize when you don't understand.