Jonathan Dee sets up the protagonists of his fifth novel to marry in haste and repent at leisure. The Privileges leaps from Adam and Cynthia Morey’s sweaty Pittsburgh wedding to a domestic scene six years later; as Cynthia sits at the table in their New York apartment with their two children, the scene has been set for the kind of unpeeling breakdown that afflicts the upper-class family. That expected dissolution never occurs in The Privileges, which works to Dee’s credit, until it’s clear nothing particularly interesting will materialize in its absence.
The Privileges follows Adam and Cynthia from marriage to the adulthood of their kids, April and Jonas. Adam, steadily working his way up through the ranks at a private equity firm, keeps them in comfort neither of them had imagined, which sets them apart even at the children’s school. But even though he becomes the boss’ favorite, Adam is so bored, he conducts a shadow business on the side to replace the adrenaline he used to feel from short-selling or running. Meanwhile, after an abortive effort to return to her pre-motherhood job, Cynthia throws herself into charity obligations that rob her of the time and candidates for true friendship.
Dee withholds some critical information on the Moreys’ early life which might explain why the marriage that sets The Privileges in motion was considered so critical to Adam and Cynthia, who trade youth for stability early, then constantly remark on the effects of that bargain. But it isn’t the solidity of their marriage that makes them dull, or the untold history of their union: It’s the fact that they, like every other character in The Privileges, sound identical to everyone else. Dee can elegantly turn a phrase when he needs to—comparing the passage of the years to a flaming, flattening wheel in the gap between marriage and children—but all his narrators sound the same notes of complacency and slight boredom, even rebellious April and brilliant, eccentric Jonas. Even in strife, they’re all just having a pleasant time, and the repetition is deadening. When one character finally faces an ordeal that isn’t rounded into a harmonic anecdote, the ensuing reaction feels like a performance benefiting Dee’s attempt to prove that the Moreys’ life has added up to something. Instead, it’s a marriage better left unexamined.