Art Imitates Life in ‘The Darlings’

Art Imitates Life in ‘The Darlings’

February 20, 2012 at 4:00 am

Author: Cristina Alger
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Publication Date: February 2012

I wrote a lot in high school, less in college. I enjoyed the practice of writing itself, but I could never seem to find a truly compelling character or a plot that held my interest. By the time I became a corporate lawyer, my writing was limited to merger agreements and late-night emails to friends.

That changed on the morning of Sept. 15, 2008. I arrived early to work at my law firm, WilmerHale, and found that my hall was already buzzing with bankruptcy attorneys and litigators. By 9 a.m., a firm-wide meeting had been called in one of the conference rooms. Every single partner was present. The stress level was at an unparalleled high. The associates glanced around the room at one another, silently wondering if we were all about to be fired.

Instead, the head of the New York office, looking more exhausted than I had ever seen him, announced the unthinkable: Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. It was the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history; Lehman held over $600 billion in assets. There was no way to quantify the impact on the U.S. economy, much less our firm, which had many financial clients, but we all knew it would be catastrophic.

Many of the girls’ tender recollections and anecdotes from their early years – driving out to the Hamptons on Friday afternoons, going on dates with guys who drank too much at Dorrian’s Red Hand – are mine.

As two bankruptcy partners walked us through how and why Lehman collapsed, I was filled with the distinct sense that in that very moment, I was living history. Like JFK’s assassination or Sept. 11, people would remember where they were when they found out about the demise of Lehman. When I returned to my desk, all I could think to do was call friends; already, some had lost jobs, others knew they were about to. My New York, comprised mostly of young bankers, lawyers and investment professionals, was profoundly shaken.

“The Darlings” is the story of New York – my New York – the way I experienced it during the fall of 2008. The fictional Darling family, the title characters in my novel, became the lens through which I told it; the father in the family was the head of a large investment bank brought to its knees after being embroiled in scandal. I loved the idea of creating a set of characters whose rise and fall captured New York at a particular moment in time.

People often ask me on whom I based the Darlings. I usually reply that they are a compilation of many people, some of whom I know personally and others who I do not. Of course, there are elements of each character that are entirely imagined. But in truth, the experience that I drew upon most heavily while I was writing “The Darlings” was my own.

The novel "The Darlings" is set in 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, once a behemoth in the investment banking industry. Flickr/asmythie

Like Merrill and Lily Darling, I grew up on the Upper East Side. I attended Chapin, an all girls’ private school, and spent my summers out on Long Island. Many of the girls’ tender recollections and anecdotes from their early years – driving out to the Hamptons on Friday afternoons, going on dates with guys who drank too much at Dorrian’s Red Hand – are mine.

I also share many of their concerns: Can I afford to raise my children in Manhattan? Would I be happier living somewhere else, somewhere less stressful, less materialistic or less cutthroat? And, particularly during the fall of 2008, when the book takes place, I wondered whether or not the financial crisis would irreparably change the New York I know and love forever.

Writing about New York and the Hamptons felt nostalgic, fun, inspiring. I began to listen more closely when my friends told anecdotes about their jobs, their friends, their lives. I became more aware of my surroundings: What kind of people frequented the Regency Hotel’s Library? What did the townhouses in the Seventies look like? What was on display at the MoMA? I revisited old haunts from my childhood: the Central Park Boat pond, my old bus stop. I called my mother and my friends when there were details I couldn’t recall. I invited acquaintances to coffee and peppered them with questions about their jobs at law firms, banks, hedge funds and government agencies. I learned that there is nothing more satisfying to me as a writer as remembering a story, seeing a detail, or hearing a description of a person and thinking – yes, that’s exactly right – and then being able to incorporate it in my work.

Everything I did, no matter how dull, became fertile ground for my book. I still remember attending a very formal, rather stiff charity benefit one evening at which I knew almost no one. At my table were several people who didn’t seem to know or care what charity was actually being benefited. The women seemed much more interested in what everyone was wearing than what the keynote speaker had to say. Two of their husbands were professional rivals who seemed intent on besting one another at the charity auction (one walked away with a sailboat, the other settled for a golden retriever puppy).

Ordinarily, I would have left irritated by such a scene; that night, I sprinted home, exuberant, knowing my first chapter was about to be born.

Also like Merrill and Lily, I grew up around a family business. My father ran a mutual fund that was founded by his brother and has, over many years, employed several family members, including myself. This was a formative experience for me, and as I wrote “The Darlings,” I knew it would be central to the development of my characters as well. For better and for worse, family businesses tend to blur the boundary between work life and home life. For my family, and for the Darlings, family is business and business is family.

Cristina Alger's novel "The Darlings" is inspired by her life -- as both an Upper East Sider and an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Photo by Deborah Feingold.

The Darlings, of course, have much more complicated professional and personal relationships than does my family. To start with, my father wasn’t a criminal, and my mother isn’t an icy socialite. While I occasionally turn up at black-tie benefits, I spend most nights at home on my couch in my sweatpants, and am neither as accomplished as Merrill Darling nor as frivolous as her sister, Lily. As I always say, the Darlings aren’t based on any one family in particular. But there’s just enough fact in each of them that they all feel real to me.

I started writing “The Darlings” not because I loved the craft of writing (though I do), but because I wanted to tell a particular story –the story of New York as I knew it.

Cristina Alger was born and raised in New York City, where she currently resides. “The Darlings” is her first novel. A book release event is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at Barnes & Noble, 150 East 86th St., Manhattan.