It’s that time of year when talk turns to beach reads, those narratives appropriate for a vacationer’s seaside repose. The greatest such book is Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fourth and (no arguing) best novel. It’s set on a beach, first of all, deploying the French Riviera as a stage on which we witness, with sympathy and delight, the misfortunes of the very fortunate. Its excellence resides in Fitzgerald’s eye for trampled glamour, his ear for voices full of money, and his penetrating wit, as when he describes a woman’s shadowy social position “as the wife of an arriviste who had not arrived.”
The glitziest exemplars from this season’s mailbag include Rich People Problems, the latest installment of Kevin Kwan’s franchise exploring the shopaholic progeny of East Asian tycoons, and The Destroyers, Christopher Bollen’s thriller about a disinherited New Yorker joining spoiled brats and sundry freeloaders on the Greek island of Patmos. But I prefer The People We Hate at the Wedding (Flatiron Books, $25.99), the third novel by Grant Ginder. The summer’s most compelling fictional exploration of affluence and envy, it skillfully mingles the introspective ways of a domestic novel with the juicy stratagems of a page turner.
The bride is Eloise, a wealthy woman with an American mother, an aristocratic French father, and a job in public relations at what the Daily Mail calls one of England’s “top 5 most shallow charities.” Wedding guests include Eloise’s two half-siblings, Paul and Alice, the children from her mother’s second marriage, to an accountant in suburban Chicago. And, of course, the mother, Donna, who’s now both a divorcée and a widow. She’s also a stoner. And can’t find a thing to wear.
The book’s sensitivity about the ways in which wealth informs personal relationships is matched by its examination of how it deforms them. The resentment of Eloise’s half-siblings—on account of her privileges and their sense that their “mother always treated Eloise a little differently”—runs deep. The first chapter finds Paul and Alice marshaling their resources of math, logic, and internet access to estimate that Eloise spent $4,500 on invitations. Their passionate analysis of paper stock recalls the intensity of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, seeming to foreshadow sororicidal mayhem.
The bloodshed here, however, is contained to a paper cut Alice sustains when ripping open the invitation. Sucking on the wounded finger, she cringes “at the metallic taste: her blood … was nothing but a fistful of pennies.” The author is capable of describing more nuanced psychological knots, as when Alice, who works at a company called Think Big Data, reflects on the wealth of her boss, who’s also her illicit lover: “Typically, confronting unchecked privilege sends her into a rage, a downward spiral that begins with frustration over the moral wrongness of global inequality and ends with (and she knows this is bad) a sort of solipsistic meditation on all the nice things she can’t afford, but others (read: her sister) can.”
It is Ginder’s nature to lay things on thick, though in a pleasant way, as if spreading herbed ricotta on artisanal bread. There’s a bravura set piece in which Alice, in England for the wedding, books a room at the deluxe London hotel Claridge’s to impress Eloise, never mind the $6,000 of further credit card debt she’ll accrue. At check-in, she learns that Eloise has paid not only for the room but also for an upgrade and all incidentals. Alice’s reaction to this masterpiece of passive aggression—an act of showing off masquerading as one of generosity—is to binge on minibar booze, Klonopin, and room service: “I’d like five English breakfasts please.” Her desperate self-defilement makes for a great, grotesque scene.
Money is a comprehensive subject of inquiry here, on every level—sociological, emotional, and literary. Paul’s boyfriend, Mark, is a behavioral economist with an unbecoming obsession with the currency of prestige. Perhaps you can guess where things are heading when Mark arranges for him and Paul to stay with a colleague whose research involves “the risk-reward analysis of remaining faithful in monogamous relationships.”
Alice’s boss, meanwhile, is an up-to-the-minute incarnation of tech-guy vanity. She, for her part, selects the spots for their clandestine dinners by looking at the restaurants’ websites and waiting to feel “the strange arousal she often experienced while flipping through catalogs from Room & Board and travel brochures from American Express.” The People We Hate at the Wedding leaves the reader feeling both compassion for and condescension toward the unrich siblings, for whom the category of “people we hate” clearly includes “ourselves.”
The book is, in this way, especially well-suited to this summer of our discontent. The first sunny season of the Trump era is sure to inspire chaise-longue jitters about the ascent of moneyed vulgarity and whether one’s own back—ramrod straight with anti-Trumpism though it might be—could be among the first against the wall when the revolution comes. The laughter the novel inspires, at Alice’s screwball adventures in status anxiety and at Eloise’s demented quest for 3,000 unscented white 10-hour votive candles, is cathartic. Like all the best beach reads, it eats the rich like so many frozen grapes.