During a time when the United States is experiencing terrible economic inequality, many people seem happy to read about the troubles of moneyed families. The characters in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, and Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty, all acclaimed novels released this year, provide a voyeuristic look into the struggles of the wealthy.
Joining the field is We Could Be Beautiful, the funny, compelling new novel by Swan Huntley, who lives in San Anselmo and who knows the world of the East Coast moneyed sophisticate firsthand.
Catherine West, the protagonist of We Could Be Beautiful, has an elegant house in Manhattan’s West Village, a ridiculous amount of money ($80,000) deposited in a trust each month, walls hung with expensive art, and a store hemorrhaging money that sells blank $10 cards. In spite of her wealth, Catherine isn’t happy, but she knows those poorer than her -- and that’s just about everyone -- may not see her as worthy of sympathy.
They said, We’re not stupid and we know you can’t buy happiness, but we also know you sort of can, too, because money means choices and choices mean you don’t have the limits we do, and that means you should shut up now and be happy.
Being able to imagine what an extremely wealthy person does all day comes directly from Huntley’s prior experience working for a family in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Huntley, in fact, was one of four full-time nannies (with some “special guest stars,” as she puts it).
Huntley wrote an essay for Salon about the job -- how the nannies hung out by the refrigerator, out of range of the surveillance cameras, trying to figure out when their boss would be home (her text symbol was the alien-face emoji and her code name was 'Filbert,' the least desirable of the nuts), and charging green juices on her credit card to relieve stress.
In We Could Be Beautiful, this world is humanized with family. Catherine has a clinging sister; a mother with Alzheimer’s; and an equally rich friend, Susan, who runs a much more successful store that sells bonsai trees. Catherine feels incomplete, and she wants a family of her own. At 43, with two engagements that haven’t worked out -- including one to a man who told Catherine she was a bad hugger and left her to marry an older woman -- Catherine feels her time to get married and have a baby may be running out.
So when she meets William Stockton, a banker whose family knew her family, and he seems smitten, she's more than willing to overlook his dog, Herman, who she doesn’t like, and her mother’s reaction to him -- which seems extreme even for her mother who doesn’t really like anyone. Even though she's still unhappy, Catherine convinces herself marriage to William will be the answer, and she desperately wants to stay together even as her doubts about him grow.
I remember thinking, The couple that laughs together stays together. I was always doing that. The couple that strolls together stays together. The couple that goes to restaurants together stays together. The couple that hangs art together stays together. If there was anything to hold on to, I was holding on to it very tightly.
Huntley says the recent spate of novels about the wealthy may fill a need for entertainment and diversion.
“Many people dream of being rich, and what you would do if you had a million dollars is a fascinating question,” she says. “Also, the stakes probably feel lower than with real-world problems.”
In We Could Be Beautiful, Catherine’s growing concern about William’s secretiveness and her mother’s antipathy leads to suspense that has critics calling the book a psychological thriller. Huntley, who has always wanted to be a writer, says she didn’t think of it that way, but with two previous unpublished manuscripts, she did plan for this one to be different.
“I decided that things were going to happen in this book,” she said. “I wanted to have a plot, and that meant outlining.”
A few more things from Huntley’s experience in Manhattan made their way into the book. When she left her nanny job, she wrote a letter to her former boss' little girl. She thought having Catherine find a letter from her former nanny would be a good plot device.
After finding the letter, Catherine tracks down her former nanny... who lives in a commune in Brooklyn. That seems a bit much, right? A commune in Brooklyn, in 2016? But this is another detail that comes from Huntley’s life. A colleague at the MacDowell Colony told her about a commune in Fort Green, and Huntley ended up living there during her nanny job. She always thought she’d write about the commune.
“I mean, how could you not?” she said. “It’s so unexpected, and they exist everywhere, and it’s a wonderful place to live on the cheap.”
Huntley also used her experience of living part-time on Kona for her next book, The Goddesses, which comes out next summer. About a woman who becomes friends with her yoga teacher, it’s being billed as The Descendants meets Single White Female.
Huntley reads from 'We Could Be Beautiful' at Folio Books (3957 24th St., San Francisco) on Thursday, September 22. Details here.