01/10/2008

The Rich are Different (by Susan Howatch)

It took me a while to become keen on Susan Howatch's writing; these days I count her as one of my favourite modern authors. She has a crisp, succinct style which nevertheless introduces some remarkably well-rounded characters, each with his or her distinct style. Her books often use multiple narrators, a technique which works brilliantly in unfolding different perspectives on the same situation.

I first read 'The Rich are Different' in 2000, and while I found it exciting and very well-written, I didn't consider it my kind of book. It's set in the early 20th century, in the world of high finance and business - and to be sure, that's not the kind of setting that usually appeals to me. So it's a tribute to the remarkable skills of this writer that I picked the book up to re-read a week ago, and despite its length (700 pages of small print) I have read at every available moment since, and finally finished it this evening.

Dinah, an ambitious but impoverished young woman, propositions Paul, a rich American banker, in the hope of saving her family property. We know they're going to get together - the opening sentence of the book tells us that she was looking for a millionaire and he was looking for a mistress. But that's just the start of this remarkably powerful novel which spans two continents and nearly twenty years.

The negative sides of ambition, lust and greed are themes throughout this novel, although there is no moralising as such. There are several very strong characters in addition to Dinah and Paul; in particular Paul's right-hand man Steve, and his great-nephew Cornelius. The first section of the book is told by Paul, the second by his wife Sylvia, and the third by Dinah. Steve, Cornelius and Dinah then narrate the final three sections of the book, drawing it to a surprising - yet somehow satisfying - conclusion.

Historically, the book begins in the years leading up to the Wall Street crash of 1929, in which most of the main characters are deeply involved. There are conspiracies and syndicates, there is fraud and theft as well as vast amounts of alcohol, and of course the inevitable and repeated adultery.

So it's really not my kind of book at all - and yet, re-reading it, I was just as gripped as I was the first time. I'd forgotten almost all the plot, and had also forgotten most of the characters. On the other hand, I did now appreciate the clever way the author has used the historical stories of Caesar and Mark Anthony as the basis of the relationship plotlines of this amazing novel.

Still in print in the UK, although rather highly priced at times; widely available second-hand.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 1st October 2008

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