Ethics and family loyalties clash in the wake of financial scandal in Cristina Alger’s novel “The Darlings.” Set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession, the book centers around a socially prominent New York family and a conflicted outsider who married into it.
“The Darlings” is the literary debut by New York native Cristina Alger, a Harvard alum and former analyst at Goldman Sachs and attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr.
QuestMag.com recently spoke with Ms. Alger about the novel, New York society, the world of high finance, and the perils of the recession.
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QM: Was there something specific that inspired the plot or characters of “The Darlings”? When and how did you come to decide you wanted to write the novel?
CA: I began writing “The Darlings” in the fall of 2008, when the book takes place. It was a surreal time: the headlines seemed to get worse every day. Banks and financial institutions were going bankrupt at an alarming rate. Personally, I was watching friends and colleagues get laid off, see their savings shrink dramatically, and we all worried constantly about the future. I think the book served as both a creative release from my job, which was very stressful at the time, and a way of getting my head around what was happening around me, both personally and professionally.
QM: How much fiction had you written before? What was the biggest challenge of writing the novel?
CM: I wrote short stories in high school and college, but “The Darlings” was my first stab at a full-length novel. I began writing it for fun, so I wasn’t as diligent about outlining the plot as I should have been. I’m a terrible outliner; I always want to jump ahead to the fun part, which for me is the writing itself. Midway through, I realized that it was going to be nearly impossible to have all the interwoven storylines come together without an outline. That was an unpleasant realization. It led to a lot of deleted pages. My challenge as I begin the next book is to become a more disciplined outliner.
QM: Which of the female characters is the most like you?
Merrill Darling and I have the most in common. We’re about the same age and have similar academic and professional trajectories. And we share both a love for and a certain cynicism about New York, where we both grew up. But I actually felt the strongest affiliation with Paul, the book’s protagonist. Paul is an outsider peering into the very insular world of the Darlings, which was exactly how I felt as the writer. I wasn’t one of them, but I did have this wonderful window into their lives.
QM: On page 35 you have a cynical passage about friendship, that all women want something from each other. Is this really the case? Is it harder to make friends when you’re raised among the socially prominent — and those who want to be?
CM: Well, I’ll start by saying that I did intend for there to be a tongue-in-cheek sort of cynicism about New York (and New Yorkers) in the book, and the passage on page 35 certainly reflects that. I am fortunate to have absolutely wonderful, supportive female friends. But I do think that women have a tendency to be competitive with one another, especially in a competitive social environment like New York. New York women can be tough – in both the best and worst senses of the word!
QM: From your point of view, what has changed about New York high society since your childhood?
CM: I didn’t give much thought to high society as a child, so I’m sure I’m qualified to opine on that! I think the most dramatic change I’ve seen was in 2008, when the market went to hell in a handbasket. New York society is, of course, very bound up with Wall Street. One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place at a charity ball during that period. Everyone is dancing and carrying on, but there’s a very grim feeling in the air that this very social world has been irreparably impacted.
Cristina Alger photo by Deborah Feingold.