The troubles of rich families: two books

No, I don’t mean the rich and famous. Those, I think we hear enough about.

I am talking about the very comfortably well-off but not famous, those suburban families with teenage kids and maybe a dog, whose swimming pool you envy when they invite you to a barbecue in their beautiful garden, and whose occasional excesses or lapses of taste (in cars, in jewelry, whatever) you occasionally criticize but feel inclined to forgive after all, because didn’t they work so very hard for this all?

Janelle Brown’s first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, peels back the curtains from the windows of one such family in Silicon Valley, whose veneer of happiness finally breaks down on the day of a successful pharmaceutical IPO. It is an addictive story, told perhaps with more sympathy for the women in the family, whose lives are all differently screwed up, and who nevertheless, at the end, seem able to build an uneasy alliance to rescue each other from the failure that each of them is so desperately ashamed of.

Brown’s book is a very accomplished first novel: I found it hard to put down and I think it will linger in my memory far beyond the summer.

It also reminded me of another book with Tom Wolfesque echoes I read a few years ago, Human Capital by Stephen Amidon. Set in Connecticut (the East Coast’s moral equivalent of Silicon Valley), it follows a real estate agent, a hedge fund manager and their respective families throughout the summer of 2001. What has stayed with me about this book is the striking depiction of the pressure on American teenagers from well-off families: pressure to be social, to be popular among friends, to succeed academically, to start building their resumes through “leadership experiences” in sports and extracurricular activities. It is a theme that surfaces in Brown’s book as well, and both highlight the wrong choices any teenager is tempted to make when under so much pressure.

I wake up every day one day older, but happy that I have long left my teeenage misery behind. When I read books like these, I am reminded to gloat and revel in the wisdom of my mature years.

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