Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty," by Ramona Ausubel

Money, money, money. “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty” (Riverhead, 2016), by Ramona Ausubel, is a novel pondering the age-old questions of “What is the meaning of life?” and “How should I live?” But as the title indicates, and as a theme throughout the book, money and privilege provide the main focus, even when the main characters, who greatly benefit from family money, are constantly downplaying (but ambivalently) its importance. “How do I live when I have money but feel guilty about it?” Fern and Edgar, a married couple with three children, both come from money; in Fern’s parents’ case it is old(ish) and confident, while in Edgar’s parents’ case it is new and anxious. But the center of the anguish and ambivalence about money is Edgar, who declines to take over his father’s steel business because he believes the business and its profits are tainted by – well, by American history, slavery, corruption, and…the list goes on. So he takes the "moral" stand of living on Fern’s parents’ money instead; he knows that if one goes back far enough in history, that money is tainted as well, but perhaps the passing of time makes it more palatable to him than that of his parents. He constantly talks about and worries about the negative effects of money, and tries in his mostly symbolic way (not actually denying himself anything he really wants) to live (ostentatiously) simply, but still accepts the “ease and plenty” provided by Fern’s family money. The author’s rather surprising achievement is to make Edgar a somewhat likeable character, despite all of his self-indulgent angst about money, the angst of a privileged person for whom nothing truly material (his family’s welfare, for example) is at stake. His ostensible reason for not taking a job is that for ten years he has been writing a novel about his own situation and moral dilemma, including a merciless attack on his father and his business. The crisis that activates the plot of this novel is Fern’s parents’ deaths and the subsequent revelation that they had spent and given away all their money; nothing is left, and now Fern and Edgar for the first time will actually have to figure out how to make their own money and support themselves and their children. This sends them both into existential tizzies, and very soon they do surprising and out of character actions that precipitate an unintended and possibly dangerous result for their children. SPOILER ALERT: The children end up fine, and it seems that the couple and family will be fine as well. This novel is well written, and raises important questions about money and privilege in human lives. To me, its major achievement is that it portrays so very well a certain type of self-involved, self-conscious, self-congratulory angst-without-anything's-actually-being-in-the-balance attitude that readers will recognize.
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