Cristina Alger knows what she’s talking about in her debut novel, The Darlings. A lifelong New York City resident, Harvard grad, lawyer, and former Goldman Sachs analyst, Alger populates The Darlings with characters who share similar pedigrees, so she can write from experience. While the inside look at the lives of Manhattan’s power brokers and high society provides some intriguing background, a straightforward plot and bland, generally unlikeable characters hamper the novel.
Set in New York City in November 2008, The Darlings primarily follows the extremely wealthy, influential Darling family. As they reel from the impact of the global financial crisis, the news that Carter Darling’s longtime business partner Morty Reis has committed suicide leads to an investigation that reveals their clients have actually been investing in a Ponzi scheme.
The book has the trappings of a thriller, but doesn’t offer a single surprise or plot twist. It predictably runs its course through the panic, cover-ups, betrayals, and confessions that seem inevitable as soon as the Darlings learn the news. It’s made worse by Alger’s lack of focus. She adopts the perspectives of many members of the large Darling clan, plus intersecting characters like the Darlings’ lawyer, his secretary, a magazine editor investigating the story, and a member of the Securities Exchange Commission. She thins her plot by using these characters as vehicles for other well-trod musings on the New York experience, including 9/11’s impact and the difficulties of forming meaningful relationships in the cutthroat city.
But none of this panoply of characters feels developed or approachable. Alger seems to have settled for giving each one a sympathetic quality and a disagreeable one, as if that was enough to make them complex: the immoral lawyer who gives huge amounts of money to charity, a tyrannical magazine editor mourning the loss of his longtime partner, and a whistleblower who’s just in it for the money she’ll get from selling her story. Carter’s oldest daughter and her husband get the most page time, but they’re still just weak, hapless protagonists, swept up in the events around them, with only a minimal sense of agency. The Darlings fails to build real sympathy for the members of the 1 percent it depicts, making them just human enough to keep their downfall from being a cathartic experience. It strives to be timely, but it fails to be relevant.