So many books today are being written about failed characters. They do stupid things, get caught, either get forgiven or ostracized , or when the book ends, the reader is left to decide the ultimate outcome. What is the message of these books? Often the main character does heinous things and gets away with it (Defending Jacob, The Dinner), while another character gets blamed for something he didn’t do or for something that seems justified, or for something trivial and is more severely punished than warranted. After reading so many like this, I am beginning to wonder if the ultimate message of most of these books is that society is upended, that we are doomed by our own selfishness and shallowness. Are we really so awful?
This book, like so many others is about affluence, and the unjustness, the unfairness of it when it falls to someone other than you. The Armsteads are just such a couple. They have an adopted Chinese child, Sara, who has a boyfriend who is black. This is her secret. They have pretty much everything they need or want, and yet, it simply doesn’t seem to be enough for them. On their “date” night, the name they give their evening out, when they visit a therapist to help them iron out their troubles, Ben blurts out an unhappy and hurtful confession which shocks his wife, Helen. He is, apparently, very unhappy and feels like he is suffocating in his current life and environment.
Shortly after this painful revelation, Ben does something very foolish to add richness and excitement to his life, and the consequences are enormous. He fools around with an employee, is set up and caught, arrested and sued. His career is over. The family is shattered and broken; the marriage is on the rocks.
Ben, who is a lawyer, finds he needs to hire one. In order to survive this tragic turn of events, he voluntarily goes away to rehab on a “trumped” up charge of alcoholism and DWI. Meanwhile, his lawyer attempts to keep him out of jail. To make ends meet, Helen eventually gets a job working for a small public relations firm owned by a Jewish man who has a ne’er do well son. She becomes the heroine.
Eventually, because of her heretofore “hidden talents”, Helen is offered a job with a larger company. Fittingly, Helen’s job is in crisis management, and, as luck would have it, she is good at it. Did the reader expect anything different? No, the reader did not. From here on in, the message of the book seems to be one of repentance and forgiveness. Helen is even hired to work with the church in the scandal involving pedophile priests. The politically correct messages are ever present and the theme of diversity is truly well represented in this book.
Each of the characters does foolish things but, most often, recognizes his/her situation before it is too late and solves the problem at hand. Sara knows her “boyfriend” is wrong for her and distances herself from him, Ben knows he has done a foolish thing, and he does everything in his power to repent and not repeat the offensive behavior. Helen realizes that temptation is everywhere and often gives advice she is incapable of following. The plot is fairly straightforward and transparent, and often contrived. The characters are a bit thinly developed, and their behavior is easily anticipated.
Helen’s message is always the same. Stop the bleeding, turn the situation around, do damage control. How do you do this? You come out and apologize, face the crisis head on, own up to your mistake and you will be forgiven. That has not always been my experience, but this is a novel. People don’t want to be treated like idiots. They want the truth. They can handle it Helen insists. However, it is these handlers, these “crisis managers” who create that truth which will be palatable to the public, using a media forum that is only too willing to help. Is that really the truth? I am sure we have all seem a media frenzy that does the opposite. After the apology, they ask for more of an apology, etc. So is it the public making the decision or being manipulated?
Apparently, the perception of truth reality is the key to redemption, not necessarily the reality itself. The idea is that people want to forgive, so if you confess (religious undertones here), you give them the opportunity to do that, and then supposedly you will be able to move on with your life. This theory works with individuals and corporations, and Helen’s gift is that she is able to successfully sell that idea to everyone. Yet, can Helen forgive her own husband for his errors after he admits the error of his ways, apologizes and pays for his mistakes? Perhaps it is easier to advise a stranger.
Although Helen’s advice to others is to confess and tell the truth, when an old friend of hers, a famous movie star, thinks he is in trouble and reaches out for her help, she is flattered and encourages him to hide and not reveal what he thinks he has done to the world, just yet. If he does, the scandal will probably destroy him and she does not believe he has actually done anything terribly wrong. In her effort to help him, she may even have destroyed evidence by having him “clean” up, by moving him from the place where the “crime” supposedly took place without calling in the police, even though there was obvious probable cause to do just that. In her effort to prove his innocence, she ignores the responsibility of her job, alienates her daughter, compromises her husband, and does not tell the truth as she so often advises others. Her behavior is contradictory to that which she espouses.
All of these unhappy, unfulfilled, unappreciative scheming, characters wanted to push the reset button. The haves were painted as selfish and greedy, while the have-nots were more deserving. The “evil rich” are on display as are the scheming “have-nots”. In the end, actions did not seem to matter, so long as public perception could be turned from negative to positive. Everything worked out in the “fantasyland” the author created.