“Everybody Rise,” a debut novel by an award-winning “New York Times” reporter, takes its title from the Stephen Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch:”
“So here’s to the girls on the go–
Look into their eyes,
And you’ll see what they know:
A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch–
It’s 2006 and Clifford’s heroine, 26-year-old Evelyn Beegan, aspires, it seems, to be one of these social dinosaurs. She wants to belong, to a world that is no longer relevant. Her blue-blood friend from Sheffield, their boarding school asks:
“Who are you trying to impress? You’re twisting yourself into knots trying to fit in with this crowd. It isn’t worth it, Evelyn. It is not worth it.”
But to Evelyn, it’s worth trying, even though:
“She did know, too well, that it mattered how money got made, or more important, when. She’d seen it at Sheffield, where the girls with terrific middle names that signified old family money had sailed into and out of whatever circles they wanted to, confident they would be accepted, and she saw it now . . . You couldn’t cover up the smell of new money, sharp and plastic as a vinyl shower curtain just out of its box. You could try, layering over it with old houses, old furniture, and manners that mimicked those of people who’d been living this life for centuries. But unless your fortune was generations old, too, it – you – would never count in the same way.”
Evelyn is director of membership at a start-up social networking site for the very rich. Even though she feels like an “interloper,” she is determined to break into the exclusive enclaves of the extraordinarily privileged. So, shamelessly leveraging her old school connections, she soon finds herself in the thick of weekends at Adirondack camps and the Hamptons. Her social calendar is rapidly filled with clubbing, committee work and debutante balls.
Keeping up with the elite doesn’t come cheap and Evelyn is soon over her head in debt. Her family – social climbing mother Barbara and plaintiff’s lawyer Dale – are having troubles of their own down on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Indicted on bribery charges, that will deplete his millions, Dale is in no position to bail Evelyn out.
There is much to enjoy in “Everybody Rise.” Clifford has a keen eye for the telling detail in the rarefied world of the very rich and very silly, whether its antler candelabra at an Adirondacks camp, the “chunks of lobster over green beans with a sauce béarnaise” served at a debutante ball, or the inviolable traditions of Adirondacks Fruit Stripe regattas. In the tradition of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” this is a tale of modern manners that is often as funny as it is class-conscious as it captures the manic quality of life before the 2008 bust.
But then there is Evelyn, who is an unconvincing outsider. Her other old boarding school friend Charlotte tells her that she was trying to make it not in New York, but in Edith Wharton’s New York – a world that “barely exists” anymore. Evelyn lies and connives to pass herself off as a denizen of this dying world.
Herein lies the problem: Evelyn’s father would be rich by any standards other than the tippity top of the 1%. She went to an elite boarding school. She went to prestigious Davidson College – which does not have sororities, as the book claims, but does have eating clubs for its women students. She manages to attract a genuinely nice, talented, and solvent boyfriend who has integrity — even on pre-2008 Wall Street. She treats him like dirt.
Frankly, 99 percent and change of the population would feel that Evelyn pretty much had it made. In the end, reading about her as she claws her way to the top – only to promptly flame out — becomes both painful and annoying. By the time Evelyn hits rock bottom and realizes how right her friends are, that “nobody cares about the WASPs except the WASPs,” this reader ceased to care about Evelyn.
“Everybody Rise” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.