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Social Satire, Spiked With Schadenfreude In 'Everybody Rise'

New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford's ambitious debut novel, Everybody Rise, about a young social climber desperately trying to claw her way to the top of New York's Old Money society, takes its title from the last lines of Stephen Sondheim's bitter toast of a song, "The Ladies Who Lunch." But its inspiration (like that of Sophie McManus' The Unfortunates, another much buzzed first novel this summer) springs from Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

Why the fascination with Old Money? As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the oft quoted line from his short story "The Rich Boy," "the very rich ... are different from you and me. ... They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are." Clifford's heroine, though not to the manor born, is smitten with what Ernest Hemingway once described snarkily as a "romantic awe" of the very rich. (That particular barb — from an early version of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" — was originally aimed at Fitzgerald.) And what better setup for a chastening fall — and for social criticism spiked with schadenfreude — than the arrogance and entitlement that's so rampant in our new gilded age?

Everybody Rise is a morality tale of misguided ambition and financial obsession set in the bubble years leading up to the U.S. financial crisis of 2008. The Great Recession's devastations are repeatedly foreshadowed — but, in one of the book's missed opportunities, never capitalized upon fully. Clifford's novel contents itself instead with skewering a superficial, materialistic culture in which partying trumps work and the number of photos you score in society pages are the markers of a shallow success — sort of a Bright Lights, Big City for the gala benefit set.

Clifford's heroine, Evelyn Beeger, is the daughter of a litigator whose parents were North Carolina millworkers. Dale Beeger has been successful enough winning pharmaceutical lawsuits to land his family in a grand house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, wryly dubbed Sag Neck. Through the machinations of her social-climbing mother, Evelyn has attended a prestigious New Hampshire prep school. But eight years out, she remains "a social bumbler" who feels like a perpetual interloper.

We meet Evelyn at 26, when she hopes that her new job — recruiting members for a startup social networking site called People Like Us, aimed at "the elite's elite" — will provide her with an entree into high society. Much of Clifford's novel tracks Evelyn's descent into a morass of self-aggrandizing lies, mounting debt and moral bankruptcy as she finagles invitations to galas, private clubs, fashion shows and expensive house parties in the Hamptons — and ignores an alarming situation that threatens her father's livelihood.

Unfortunately, the book isn't nearly as entertaining as Clifford obviously means it to be. Because her depiction of the social scene Evelyn strains to penetrate is so unrelievedly repulsive and shallow, her characters' foibles quickly become tedious. There are some funny lines — including Evelyn's mother's snobbish objection to her nice, nerdy boyfriend: "Do you really want to spend your life with someone who can't play tennis?" But in general, Clifford's take on this hermetic culture lacks the ironic zing of Wharton's and Sondheim's perspectives.

Clifford's targets seem too easy, like hunting in a zoo. East Side socialite Camilla Rutherford, the insidiously nasty alpha girl Evelyn courts hardest, is more caricature than character. Her habit of preceding insults by citing the advice of her various "therapists" — palmist, acupuncturist, reiki master — is amusing. But it isn't enough to relieve our impatience with Evelyn for immersing herself (and us!) in too many vapid calculations: "The Bal Francais, Evelyn knew, ranked near the bottom of New York balls, but was still important."

Evelyn's over-the-top overspending, which makes Meghan Daum's financial acumen in My Misspent Youth seem downright savvy, also strains our patience. Clifford relies on so many brand names to tag the consumerist culture — Gucci loafers, Thomas Pink shirts, Patek Philippe watches, Lilly Pulitzer dresses, Grey Goose vodka — that you start to wonder if she's getting fees for all the product placements.

Although Everybody Rise delivers a satisfying conclusion, it may come too late for many readers. One of Evelyn's real friends, a hard-working star at a prestigious private equity firm, with no time for ladies' luncheons, has it right: "Charlotte didn't think money made people interesting." As Sondheim put it, I'll drink to that.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.