Grab a Dark & Stormy, put out some Brie, and settle in for a tale about America’s answer to Julian Fellowes’ Snobs
It may come as a surprise that I enjoyed Everybody Rise as much as I did, given my somewhat scathing recent review of Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive. On the surface, the two books are undeniably similar, charting the rise of two former wallflowers to the top of New York’s society. However, each author terms “rising to the top” differently, and Knoll seems to consider that owning a Céline bag constitutes class. Clifford is conscious that this is not the case, as she digs deep into New York’s well-protected WASP elite, their sterling reputations generally tarnished only by entirely inaccurate literature—apart, of course, from the Gossip Girl series of yore—since the days of the Mitford, Wharton, and Post books that Clifford’s protagonist Evelyn studies like the Holy Bible. Where Knoll merely scratches New York society’s surface with a misguided mention of Nantucket [certainly a preferred summer destination for Massachusetts WASPs, but rarely populated by the New York ilk], Clifford goes deeper, with her mentions of the Adirondacks and Quogue, and characters not socializing in Elizabeth & James at trendy New York restaurants, but instead suffering through family dinners at their estates [which they call ‘cottages’ or ‘cabins’ no matter the size, bien sûr] across the Hudson, wearing fifteen year-old fisherman’s sweaters over worn-in jeans and subsisting on a steady diet of dark and stormies and G&Ts, Carr’s water crackers and Camembert.
So, the book’s first strength was its accuracy. That is not to say many of the people profiled within were not absolute caricatures of their stereotypes, but the Member’s Parties at the Guggenheim, the lunch benefits for Sloan Kettering at Café Sabarsky—all of that is real, whether frothy and frivolous or not. What also makes the book fascinating is Clifford’s decision to have the book take place between 2006 and 2007, on the eve of the housing bubble burst and the market crash. A few of Clifford’s characters work in finance, and each one of the ridiculously successful seems to sense, to varying degrees, their impending doom, that they are impossibly young for it to be this good this early.
What also sets Everybody Rise apart from the hordes of New York chick-lit that inundate bookstore shelves on a yearly basis is Evelyn’s mother. In Luckiest Girl Alive, TifAni’s mother was undoubtedly tacky and pushy, but Evelyn’s mother Babs–who would’ve fit right into my “Mommie Dearest” post–truly explains why she set out to become the insufferable woman she did. Babs is never outright horrible to Evelyn, but she is obsessed with gaining entrée into New York’s most impenetrable circle, committing cringe-inducing faux pas—from using “prep” as a verb to mentioning her husband’s income in a futile attempt to impress the reigning doyenne of the New York charity circuit—in the process. I felt so uncomfortable with Barbara’s behavior that I was tempted to skip the parts with her in them, but the discomfort is a sure sign that these scenes were interesting and real. Evelyn’s father, whom it is difficult to go into detail about without revealing massive spoilers, is a similarly fascinating portrait of a man from another world struggling to make sense of why these New Yorkers consider themselves so special.
The best part of the book though, is another uncomfortable aspect—though the New York chick-lit trope is familiar, the general formula that follows is “girl struggles to fit in, finally makes it, alienates people in the process, has a realization before it all gets too bad, asks for forgiveness and turns herself around in the nick of time.” Clifford does not award her protagonist such luxuries. Evelyn does her penance—but it’s not quite enough, rendering the book all the more real; you can’t just wake up, decide to make it in New York, and get by without not just a few, but multiple, bumps along the road. Evelyn’s rise and her subsequent, disastrous fall, is representative of a reality that most authors choose to ignore. Clifford’s decision to go there sets her apart from the Sophie Kinsella and Lauren Weisberger books that succeeded her. It would be easy to read these book and write it off as on par with its predecessors, but if you pay any attention to characters’ family histories and circumstances, you will notice—and appreciate—the hardship and reality that runs through the novel’s core.