Robert Vishniak has a complicated relationship with his roots. Raised Jewish in the Oxford Circle neighborhood of Philadelphia, he grew up surrounded by a sprawling extended family and by neighbors so close they might as well be relatives. Even as a young boy, however, Robert becomes keenly aware of his own physical attractiveness --- thanks largely to the positive attention he receives from those female neighbors and relatives, as well as teachers and, eventually, classmates --- and of his own desire for attractive young women.
Although Robert grows up with a healthy sense of his own self-worth, aided by constant assurance that he's smart, he's also perpetually embarrassed by his family, especially as he prepares to leave Philadelphia and go to college in Boston. His whole family history is riddled with stories of men --- including his own father --- who aspired to seemingly accessible dreams, failed to achieve them, and wound up working at the post office.
Determined to avoid such a fate, Robert heads to Tufts University, where he first encounters classmates --- particularly his brilliant but aimless roommate Tracey --- who have grown up with the ease and confidence provided by wealth and privilege. From Tracey and his friends, Robert studies the mannerisms, the dress and the habits of the rich as earnestly as he devotes himself to his academic work. But his college years coincide with the buildup of the war in Vietnam, and even as social hierarchies seem to be breaking down amid the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, Robert's life-changing love affair with a beautiful and idealistic but secretive woman named Gwendolyn ultimately convinces him that a life of financial security, not one of idealism or activism, is the right sort of future for him.
When Robert meets and eventually marries Crea, the daughter of old money and a childhood friend of Trace, he suddenly finds himself firmly entrenched in the world he has dreamed of for so long. Exclusive gated communities, gorgeous Park Avenue penthouses, his own driver, his dream job at Crea's father's law firm --- all these things are now available to him. But even as the chasm between his new life and the world of his childhood grows ever wider, Robert seems increasingly unsure about his place in the world: "Surely this is where I belong, because I have made it so. Surely this is where I belong. So much was being offered to him, the whole world, practically…. He would appreciate the beauty in front of him and not spend so much time looking back." When, approaching 40, Robert meets a young woman from his old Philadelphia neighborhood, this uneasiness develops into a full-fledged crisis.
Sharon Pomerantz's debut novel is both a terrifically intricate study of a complex character --- one who is not always likable but becomes nevertheless sympathetic --- and a broadly sweeping portrait of four decades of American life, the events of which both parallel and influence Robert's own life. Although Pomerantz offers plenty of implicit and explicit social and economic commentary in her portrayal of Robert and the world in which he imposes himself, the book is also wish-fulfillment of a sort for the reader, as her detailed descriptions of cars, fashions and, most especially, real estate stoke fantasies of unbelievably wealthy lifestyles.
RICH BOY is an excellent summer novel, one that offers a rip-roaring good historical saga, a compelling character study, an emotional mix of tragedy and romance, and tantalizing details of luxury and wealth --- the perfect formula for whiling away the lazy days of late summer with a terrific new book.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011