Wow! What a roller coaster ride! Clinging to the painted cars, looping up and down on contorted rails, twisting and turning, are the hedge fund managers, the corporate attorneys, and their avaricious clients. Close behind, sometimes just ahead, always crowding close, are the SEC investigators, the newspaper reporters, the gossip mongers. On the straightaway, racing hell bent toward disaster, are the wives, the families, the spouses tainted by decades of familial deceit and now by public discovery. The Darling family is the epitome—wealthy, well-positioned, apparently poised safely at the top of the ride. Their fate, in this gripping novel by Cristina Alger, begins with a little slippage of the gears and soon is a headlong plunge that caroms out of control and brings them down in a stunning, multi-faceted crash.

The Darlings is intriguing for many reasons. It’s timely, in that it unveils a financial Ponzi scheme that unravels almost overnight and that harms untold numbers of innocent—and not-so-innocent—people along the way. It’s compelling. Despite their almost obscene wealth and privilege, the characters are real people with complex emotional responses to their plights. Not all of them are likeable, but they’re absolutely fascinating. So are their stories. From the matriarch who always looks the other way, to the patriarch who seeks to save his damaged family name, to the daughters and their husbands, each trapped in one way or another, the Darlings find themselves not at an amusement park but in a mirrored house of horrors.

Events move at a staccato pace. The novel could easily have been twice as long, a legal thriller with intricate machinations and courtroom drama. Instead, Alger chooses to describe the Darling’s nightmare at the moments of discovery and from the inside out. More important than the legal details are the psychological attitudes of those involved as they react to one upsetting and unsettling revelation after another. “It was such a delicate web of decisions,” one character muses, “these were the fibers of the noose with which they had hanged themselves.” Equally intriguing are the players’ justifications, because clients are strangely missing from this fast-paced narrative. It’s all about the fat cats, about swindlers and self and survival. “You do what’s right for your family” is the repeated rationale, even as the tycoons are ensnaring their families in webs of lies.

By the end of the novel, the roller coaster cars are all in a heap. Reputations have been wrecked overnight, fortunes endangered or lost, family ties split asunder. Some characters sit in silenced disbelief; others are already taking care of themselves and their futures. The reader can’t help but wonder, ’is this an accurate portrayal of the real-life, twenty-first century.

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