This year's most-discussed literary novels seem to circle around a pressing question: Where did all the money go? To pick just two examples, Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic" explores the kind of risky investment banking that sank Lehman Brothers, while Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That" studies how health care expenses take their toll on Americans. Martha McPhee's entertaining fourth novel, "Dear Money," works similar turf, bringing a Pygmalion tale to the world of high finance. Like those other novels, it's a critique of greed, but it also provocatively shows how much fine art piggybacks on big money.
The novel's heroine, India Palmer, is a novelist who's rich in acclaim but, by Manhattan standards, is scraping by. Her novels have earned major awards but sell modestly, and her husband is an artist in a similar circumstance. She's pushing 40, raising two kids in New York, and tired of teaching to supplement her income. A potential savior arrives in the form of friend-of-a-friend Win Johns, a securities trader who half-jokingly suggests he could make her a trader as good as any on Wall Street in 18 months.
Win eventually makes good on that proposal, but before that "Dear Money" is a lively character study of India and an author's neuroses. She's a well-meaning artist, but she's also not without a devious streak or a lust for finer things. Though the novel she's just finished is admired, she mostly hopes it "would be the winning ticket in the literary lottery where art met commerce and bought you a fancy new coat for your trouble." McPhee's prose has a subtle edge to it: She luxuriates in describing the things India obsesses over, and those deep descriptions are part of the novel's charm. All the while, though, McPhee is signaling how fleeting it all is.
Fleeting, because India starts trading mortgage-backed securities in 2004, and we all know how that particular story ends. McPhee has clearly studied traders closely, and "Dear Money" captures their lingo, bluster, willful ignorance and competitiveness. India is unusual as a woman on the trading floor, but McPhee is less concerned with how high finance breeds sexism than with how money supports art. In the novel's background are a trader who quits banking to write, a friend who hits that literary jackpot, India's husband, who chases commissions from a wealthy patron, and museum fundraisers. Like India, they all get on the roller-coaster in an effort to prove that art needn't be born out of suffering. Even so, McPhee argues, there are no guarantees. Creativity, like all those bad mortgages, exists in an unstable market.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.