Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Exceptional Read: Wealth and Privilege by Jeanette Watts

I define an Exceptional Read as a well written book that shakes me up, emotionally or mentally. It stops me in my tracks for some reason; challenges me to consider things that really - in my ordinary existence -  make no difference. An Exceptional Read challenges my thoughts, emotions, and spirit. I'm convinced, even if only for the span of the book, it should matter to Every Being in the Universe.  There are qualifiers to exceptional reads.  The label I apply depends on my mental engagement and my emotional response.  Your mileage may vary.

Note:  I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
My Experience:  A+
Synopsis:  Money. Family. Love. Hate. Obsession. Duty. Politics. Religion - or the lack thereof. Sex -- or, once again, the lack thereof.
Thomas Baldwin finds himself married to a woman he can’t stand, while head-over heels in love with another woman he can’t have. Talk about bad planning. He is something of a kite, buffeted by circumstances which blow him not only through personal crises, but also through some of the most significant events of the late 1800s, including the railroad riots of 1877, the creation of the Homestead Steel Works, the assassination of President Garfield, and the Johnstown Flood. Over time, and with the help of his muse, who dances maddeningly just beyond his reach, he takes control of his life, wresting it from the winds attempting to control him.

Using a period of history that captures my imagination, Ms. Watts tapped in to a previously unrealized, but obviously primal, need of mine to affirm the truism that wealth and privilege is no guarantee of a happy life. I may have been the only person holding on to that quaint notion, look at the best seller lists these days:  Billionaires are The Answer to everything.  There may be no one left clinging to that Money Don't Buy Me Love nonsense.  I hope she's prepared for the psycho-social fall out....

Ms. Watts did oodles of research then she wrote an engaging book, from the viewpoint of One Man, Thomas Baldwin, without resorting to first person narrative. Bravo!  Even so, I think she should be smacked, hard.

Wealth and Privilege is an exceptionally provoking read. I gobbled it up in one setting, most of it with my mouth hanging open like a carp, not a good look for anyone.  I had to set it aside for a couple days and re-read it to write this review just to be absolutely sure my initial reactions weren't all jerky knee provocations intended to smack me with my own gullibility.  I may be financially challenged and educationally deprived, but even I know when an author seasons her text with Thoreau, she means to be taken seriously.

First warning:  Read the words, take them at face value and you will find an ugly, but exceedingly interesting fish tale.  OR.  Look for the minutiae; allow the subtle humor to caress your work-a-day troubles away.  In this way you can know, without a doubt, the book ended perfectly.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” - Thoreau

Second warning:   Don't let the pretty cover fool you.  This is not a traditional romance; it's barely a romance at all, except between the author and reader.

History and tabloids are littered with people that had great success in business and none in their personal life.  We expect that truism to be located, etched in stone, any day now. Through One Man's eyes, we learn with shrewish, ignorant, selfish wives for companions, what choice did these great men have but to invent, design, and revolutionize the world?  These men built cities and empires and companies because they were miserable everywhere BUT at the factory, foundry or negotiating table. Of course it's possible....

"...the horrible realization of how much he was like his father.  Married to a shrew, not prone to talking much; the company was the primary focus of his life.  His father had excelled at making money.  He certainly hadn't excelled at the art of living.  Thomas was becoming better and better at making money.  Was he doomed to be as big a failure as his father was? ... He didn't want to be like his father.  And he didn't have the faintest idea of what he could do to prevent the similarities."

With one exception, no one in this book knows how to love.  They barely understand common courtesy.  Second generation born to wealth and privilege, One Man has never known love expressed.  He only knows how to despise, how to avoid, hide, pretend, sneer and fear even his family.  Day in, day out, strolling side by side in complete accord is his most secret fantasy.  His parents only know how to complain, badger and nag.  His extended family is a determined mob [picture Wal-Mart on the day after Thanksgiving]; they only know how to overwhelm, mock and congregate for every occasion, though at least some of them bring a dish.  His best friend is a hen-pecked sportsman, long on tales, short on commitment to anything but being the center of attention - pity or love, it's all about him.  One Man's life of quiet desperation seems a conclusion before the third chapter, but don't be fooled by the reflective surface.

Third warning:  The book appears to be all about One Man but it is really all about Regina. Never lose sight of that fact.  Keep it in mind from the moment he realizes who she is.

 "And always - always there was Regina."  "The Mrs. Waring.  Of course Thomas had heard of her.  Everyone in Pittsburgh, Allegheny, and, heck all of Allegheny County had heard of her.  While fashionable women whispered in their parlors about Regina's unseemly - no, unwomanly - behavior, Regina was welcomed behind the closed doors of board rooms where powerful men made deals and made money. Thomas was intrigued, and crushed.  He had just fallen in love at first sight with a married woman!"

She is an idol, living perfection on a pedestal no One Man can climb.  She came from nothing.  But she enters One Man's life boldly, unapologetic, beautiful, possessing superior business skills, and of course, is socially adept, witty, charming, always with the right opinions in her societal awareness, with not just college attendance but a degree - she's the Enjoli Woman on Steroids.  Her only imperfection is how she copes with grief and that is so passionate it becomes perfect as well.  When she has an affair with a married man, she remains on that pedestal without wobbling because really, she's doing him a divine favor.  The allusion to her youthful crush on this man and how stunned she was to find him reaching for her tries to be an imperfection, but it's not.  It's a tribute to her gloriousity, truly.   Fortunately, she spends much of the book being unobtainable and unavailable, coming and going and involved with grief, business, her lover, and her grand mansion.  Otherwise, she might make you feel inferior as a human being.

Fourth warning:  Thomas develops his character by castigating his wife, mother and family.  He feels justified by circumstance, by the inferiority of his targets.  He has earned the right [and privilege] to be the one saying the cruel things; is surprised only by how long it took him to figure out being verbally violent gets people to do what you want.

"Well, he was paying a price for his inability to leave the comfortable and familiar behind.  All the influence he imagined he carried with the outside world ended at his doorstep.  Behind his own front door, he was powerless inside his own life.  It seemed that, for him, this man's home was not so much is castle but his prison."

Which brings us to his wife, Meredith.  A girl of beauty, money and family; nudged and coached by her mother and his, she and Thomas are discovered in a compromising position.  For three months, he makes not one objection, asks no questions, offers no suggestion that he is anything but willingly marrying her.  On his wedding night, he tells her it will be a marriage in name only.  Fourteen years is an amazing length of time to extract revenge.  The ultimate irony of this story is how Thomas has reservations regarding a business deal based on revenge against Carnegie.  "It's about revenge, not money."  Revenge is bad for business but excellent for marriage.  What's more, he enjoys hurting Meredith, enjoys the power he is discovering within himself, relishes how his indifference keeps her dancing, just not with him.

She may have been as "unmatable" as Thomas claimed. It's impossible to actually see Meredith through his eyes.  Her words and actions are so corroded with his impressions they can't mean anything but what he decides they do.  Meredith's only purpose was to be evidence of his development, proof his life was desperately miserable indeed.  I don't pity her.  I don't despise her.  I don't think she was much different from hundreds of thousands of other young girls protected, sheltered and laced tight until it came time to serve their purpose in life, to seal an alliance between families.  Meredith wasn't really a character at all, she was as much a symbol - the fallen women - as Regina - the perfect woman.

Which brings us back to "And always - always there was Regina."

Final warning:  The last four chapters will stun you. Don't think you'll be able to set the book aside and finish it later - not gonna happen.

If you reach that point and have any doubt Ms. Watts excels at telling a damn good story, it will vanish before the end of the book.  I am so very grateful she ended it as she did.  I could kiss her fingertips for not giving us an epilogue or, please no, a hint of a sequel.  Some stories are meant to end with the possibilities open, left to the heart of the reader.  We are blessed with so few of those precious acknowledgements of a reader's need to engage their imagination beyond the pages and cover of the author's domain.  It was worth looking like a carp, just for that privilege.

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