The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus


It was Ron Charles' enthusiastic review that drew me to this debut novel. The main character is descended from a rubber baron and has devoted her life spending money to make everything in her environment perfect as she conceives perfection. This is particularly challenging to achieve with her children, but she is undaunted. And quite unappealing.

The story is related chiefly from the viewpoints of CeCe, the grande dame, her son George, a more self-delusional character you'll never meet, and his former bartender wife Iris, a loyal and good-hearted woman.

When we meet CeCe she is boarding a yacht where she is hosting a fund-raising party. She works hard to hide her debilitating disease, multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder. Shortly afterward, she goes to stay in a clinic where an experimental drug is administered. After months of misery, including a near-death experience with pneumonia, she realizes her symptoms are diminished. CeCe is amazed to find herself coming to care for an inappropriate woman, that is, an ordinary woman. Dotty's sudden death is painful to CeCe. 

While CeCe is away, George is able to borrow enough money to mount the execrable opera he has been writing. He thinks the Met will be picking it up once it opens in the venue he is able to afford. The extent of his delusion is evident in his thoughts here, as he brings friends to see a rehearsal:

    George had insisted they sit in the balcony–"I need the artistic distance," he said, as they entered the theater….He also doesn't want to distract the soprano by sitting too close. He suspects in the last weeks she's become overwhelmed by the relentlessness of his creativity and has developed a crush on him. What else explains her sudden aloofness, her disinclination to respond to his suggestions?

CeCe's softening, surprising to herself, does not extend to helping George when he is unable to keep up the payments on the loans. When the devastating reviews come in, George spirals downward and poor ill-equipped Iris tries to cope on her own with the overwhelming debt.  At this point we have the plot turn referred to by the author as influenced by Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, when Iris allows George's friend to invest for her so she can pay the debts. When CeCe returns home and steps in to restore their finances, have their house returned to its normal state, and intervene with psychiatrists for George, Iris is unnerved. She thinks "another rule about the rich no explained to Iris–when they lose their money, they've only misplaced it, like a set of keys." A rule in this novel, if not generally so.

The interior monologues of the characters are a means of furthering the plot. Sometimes the thought process is hard to follow and not too clarifying, notably when CeCe has pneumonia, but it is an interesting aspect of the story development. 

Sophie McManus, The Unfortunates, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 353 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries.

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