Literary Darling: A Q&A With Cristina Alger

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. recently spoke with Ms. Alger about the novel, New York society, the world of high finance, and the perils of the recession.

• • •

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.