By Sophie McManus
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
368 pages, $26
By Stephanie Shapiro
“If Cecilia Somner gives her approval to a cause, other donors follow,” forming her “octopus of righteousness.” Cecilia’s contributions are brave; they offer seed money and they risk support for fledgling efforts.
She is accustomed to dealing with whatever comes her way. If an antagonist doesn’t yield to her persuasion, she can just manipulate the problem away. Boaters passing her estate annoy her, so lacking legal means of keeping them away, she has the place declared a historic site with access limited.
As she prepares for her transition away from heading the family’s foundation in favor of her feckless son, George, the gala boating brunch personifies her own fussy history.
Dressing for the brunch, Cecilia “puts on ballet flats of soft, blue leather with white soles… dark soles and heels being unacceptable on a boat, though she doesn’t expect her guests to know the old rules.”
Next to Cecilia, CeCe to most people, the acid-tongued duchess from “Downton Abbey” would seem like a dear old lady. At age 75, she is all too aware of the gaps in staff training that she must correct in a single morning.
“If anyone drinks too quickly, you will forget to pour every other time, and if they look slighted, pour half as much as usual,” she instructs them. And the oysters? “They must be no longer than your thumb. Women do not like to swallow oysters as large as these.” Son George, hearing it all, dares himself to jump overboard. Instead, he drinks a Bloody Mary.
After reminding the servers that fruit should not be next to salmon tartare, she admonishes them that if they must use the restroom they should take a clean towel, leading onlookers to assume they are “improving it for their benefit.” Oh, and “we will not serve anything with a straw.”
All this is for one of the many charities the Somner family has supported for decades, under Cecilia’s dauntless leadership.
Amid all the rules and precision, some teenage girls in swimsuits run their motorboat up against the party boat and ask for lunch, having left their picnic basket at home on a countertop.
Right here is where cracks begin to appear in Cecilia’s world. So much for decorum: the original guests put on swimsuits, all the protocol falls away. The scene is a foreshadowing of Cecilia’s world falling apart. In movie terms, she is tumbling from the polished world of “The Great Gatsby” to the chaos of “The Big Lebowski.”
Multiple system atrophy, described as a symptomatic cousin to Parkinson’s, has its grip on her, and she enrolls in a drug trial, requiring residence in a distant nursing home, where she is at the mercy of a staff of dolts, but manages to make a friend here and there: a landscaper and a fellow patient. Her grip on the foundation loosens further.
Her plight recalls the 1976 documentary film “Grey Gardens” showed the living conditions of a previously wealthy aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, apparently unable to fix up enough of their decaying Long Island mansion to live decently. The decrepit place even was declared a health hazard, but the women seemed unable to devise options for themselves. (Relatives eventually paid for repairs.) The cousin at age 57 lacked appropriate clothing and spent a fair amount of her time tap dancing in an improvised outfit and trying to find a way to escape the place. “Costume” would be too lavish for the dancing getup. The bedridden aunt seemed oblivious to the squalor of her home.
In “The Unfortunates,” we see how illness can turn even the richest, most arrogant person helpless in no time flat, how the best of intentions can backfire into financial scandal.
Cecilia Somner’s estate in Stockport includes her main house and a smaller one for her son, George, and his outsider wife, Iris. Iris has left her hatchecking job to sell real estate. Twists of fate shadow all three.
George is on the foundation payroll, but he is writing an opera about a post-nuclear New York. No professional company (Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera) wants to produce it, leaving him scrambling for money to produce it himself and prove the experts wrong. It flops.
Iris, meanwhile, tries to patch up the family finances with her meager pay as a real estate agent and the help of a broker friend of George’s. That part of the story comes tumbling down when Bob, the friend, greets George with, “Has the SEC contacted you yet?”
Plenty else happens, with twists of fate coming out of the blue. George socks Iris’ personal trainer, but doesn’t intend to kill him. The drug trial fails, sending Cecilia home, somewhat mellowed by her experiences as a guinea pig. The developers of the real estate Iris has been selling are exposed as out and out crooks. She goes home to Canada with her baby.
Throughout, McManus keeps some light peeking through the dark humor. The scene with broker Bob and fellow intoxicated customers getting drunker and more garrulous with every drink is so dead-on that we want it to end, but it goes on, seemingly forever, just as in real life. We wish the drinkers would just shut up, or go home, or pass out, or something. Anything. They make deals they may not remember. Eventually McManus lets the reader off the hook and ends the scene..
Her achievement in this novel is creating characters who develop over time, who have goals and desires, who try as hard as they can but still mess up other people’s lives. We care about them. We wish George would sober up, give back the money and understand what a failure his opera is. We are pleased when Cecilia gives Iris but not George enough money to stave off criminal penalties. We even are relieved when George is acquitted of the death he didn’t mean to cause.
Her characters are like people we know, maybe even a little like us. And like us, they learn as they go along. If only they weren’t quite so clueless.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.