Angelica Baker’s “Our Little Racket” is about the upper crust, the top 1 percent, those who employ the rest of us as drivers, nannies, maids and cooks. Although the novel is set in the banking crisis of 2008, it feels as current as today’s congressional testimony.
Described in the publicity materials as “ ‘The Big Short’ as written by Edith Wharton,” this smart debut novel tells the story of a family, whose patriarchal head is the CEO of a bank, from the points of view of five females deep in the hills of Greenwich, Conn.
There’s Lily, the well-pedigreed nanny hired by Isabel, the gorgeous and remote wife of the head of Weiss & Partners. There’s Madison, the ever-loyal sidekick to her father, who at 15 is a heady mix of hormones, rage and hubris. Mina, Isabel’s only friend, walks a tightrope of insecurity about her lower-class roots. Finally, there’s the likable Amanda, Madison’s sole friend.
“Our Little Racket” is about the deleterious effects of too much money — having it and getting it — and about the rituals, status-measuring, unspoken codes and pretense that shroud the lives of the ultra-rich. The novel is ambitious, if a tad over-long. It’s about Stepford Wives, or in this case, Greenwich wives, who prop up their driven husbands until the bottom falls out.
Bob D’Amico is one of the husbands being propped up. But he has taken more risks than even his most daring colleagues, and now the industry is calling for his head.
His daughter Madison is the apple of her father’s eye, enjoying insider status. She thinks she knows him better than anyone else. After all, she has been everything from his confidante to his cocktail waitress.
Baker writes: “Madison’s father liked her to mix his drinks, especially when other men from the bank were over at the house. By the time she was ten years old, she already knew every possible way Bob D’Amico might take his bourbon, or when he’d prefer scotch, which he only ever took one way.”
The atmosphere in this novel is stretched taut as the characters wait for the other polished loafer to drop. The thud comes when Bob’s investment bank fails.
The D’Amico annual vacation is disrupted when stressed-out Bob abruptly returns to work. Shortly thereafter he fails to come home, retreating to Manhattan and leaving nanny Lily to minister to the 8-year-old twins and teenaged Madison, while Isabel takes to her upstairs bedroom with bottles of pills borrowed from her friend Mina.
Madison is on her own to navigate the shark-infested waters of Greenwich Prep, where overprivileged kids take pot shots at her. Her friend Amanda, distant for months, sees Madison’s family troubles and tries to move back toward her pal but is rebuffed. Part of the problem is that Amanda’s father, a Yale professor who writes a newspaper column, begins skewering D’Amico in print.
Amanda has to satisfy herself with trying to support her former best friend from the sidelines. Mostly she just shows up and stands helpless as Madison cavorts with a reckless cohort of airhead students she would have previously spurned, including hunky Chip, whose interest in her is purely exploitative.
This is a novel of manners, but with bite. If this reader wished for more of a feminist rebellion at novel’s end, that would have been inconsistent with the passive-aggressive nature of these Greenwich women. Money doesn’t buy fortitude, grit or spine.
In fact, at the end, money fails these characters, and these moneyed characters fail one another. The novel’s darkness is a reminder that money can’t buy a happy ending, either.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Topeka. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
“Our Little Racket,” by Angelica Baker (499 pages; Ecco/HarperCollins; $34.99)