Old Money, New Money

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty   Ramona Ausubel     (2016)

Ramona Ausubel seems to have several goals for her novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. She’s trying to explain what it feels like to be a rich kid who’s not comfortable with riches. She’s narrating a deep love between an Old Money kid and a New Money kid, contextualizing them in their families. She throws in a Great American Road Trip. There are some off the wall sub-plots, like the re-enactments of pre-Columbian Native American life. And there are the quirky elements, like the character who’s a giant, and the fawn that happens to die in a suburban back yard at a critical point in the plot.  

Fern and Edgar Keating and their three children are closing out a wonderful summer at their beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, all shimmering seas and sandy toes and billowing sails. Suddenly, they receive news that Fern’s Old Money, on which they live lavishly, is totally gone. Fern and Edgar have always hated the money; Edgar has even written an anti-capitalist novel. But they know of no other way to survive. Each freaks out in a separate way, but the consequence is that they unintentionally leave their nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old twin sons alone in their huge brick Colonial house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several days.

If you think that this sounds like the 1990 Christmas movie Home Alone, you’re right. But it’s a little more believable because the year is 1976, when kids walked to school by themselves and wandered their neighborhood by themselves.

The novel shifts back and forth between the 1976 existential family crisis and the period 1965-1970, when Fern and Edgar met, fell in love, and dealt with the Vietnam War. For Americans who came of age during that war, all aspects of life were shaped by the draft notices, the transport planes to Southeast Asia, the flag-draped coffins on the nightly news, the maneuvering of exemptions for a few, the protests, the beleaguered veterans.

Although Ausubel gets much of the Vietnam-era tone right, she falters on the details. As just one example, in 1966, Fern’s brother, Ben, could have had an exemption from the draft for attending college. Everyone knew this, and any male high-school graduate even marginally qualified for college enrolled. Nervous parents, especially wealthy ones, made sure of this. If an author creates a fictional universe, historical fact doesn’t have to be part of the game. But if an author anchors her story in an actual universe, wrong details are jarring.

I appreciate the magic realism in Ausubel’s tale. After all, the wealthy can seem permanently glittered over with fairy dust. But the mysterious appearances of pie slices at many roadside diners can seem forced in a plot that’s grounded in quotidian family life. And Ausubel doesn’t wrap up a number of sub-plot forays. What really happened with that kiss in the darkened girls’ bathroom? Did Edgar go back to the family business or not? Did anybody call Animal Control about that dead fawn in the back yard? 

Ausubel has some lovely metaphors, tossed off seemingly casually. And her descriptors—of window molding or hair style or suit jacket—are apt but always spare enough to keep the plot bounding along. I turned the 306 pages with enthusiasm, anxious to know what happened to Fern and Edgar and the gang. In the end, though, this good novel lacked the full power that I think Ausubel was capable of.