Review

The Wentworths

by Katie Arnoldi

Are
you familiar with that cable television show “The Real
Housewives of Orange County”? The one that encourages viewers
to vicariously celebrate its subjects' fabulously luxurious
lifestyles even as they secretly revel in the rich suburbanites'
secret problems, crises and failures? Well, Katie Arnoldi's new
book is kind of like that. Except without the celebrating part. In
THE WENTWORTHS, her second novel following her surprise bestseller
CHEMICAL PINK, Arnoldi gleefully skewers the self-absorbed,
self-deluded members of one of Los Angeles's foremost
families.

Nary a member of the extended Wentworth clan escapes Arnoldi's
wickedly funny poison pen. There's big game hunter, compulsive
womanizer and closet alcoholic Augustus, the patriarch of the
family, and his wife Judith, a woman who will defend her family to
the death --- at least to outsiders. One on one, though, Judith is
a force to reckon with, as she cleverly and maliciously exploits
each of her children's weaknesses to get what she wants (in this
case, a set of valuable sugar tongs, whose disappearance
precipitates one of the novel's central crises).

Judith's grown children have not fared well under the combination
of a dictatorial mother, a distant father and way too much money.
Conrad, the eldest, is a lawyer successful at representing some of
the most despicable and notorious clients in Los Angeles. He's
clearly hung up on his mother, as his string of short-term
girlfriends bear a suspicious resemblance to a young Judith. In
between girlfriends, Conrad keeps himself busy with a variety of
questionable sexual exploits, including some with very young
girls.

Becky, the middle child, idolizes her mother, starving herself to
maintain the kind of perfect body her mother has always possessed.
Distant from her well-meaning but bumbling husband Paul and
ultra-critical of her own two troubled children, Becky finds
herself turning more and more to sleeping pills to solve her
problems.

And then there's Norman, the oddball of the family. The youngest
son, whose homosexuality and cross-dressing both mystify and
embarrass the family, Norman lives a lonely life in his parents'
guest house, longing only to escape from under the oppressive thumb
of the Wentworth family name. The philosopher of the family, Norman
is the only one who thinks he sees his family for the monstrous
people they are: "Norman was a robin's egg, all fragile and baby
blue… And there he sat in a room full of egg sucking
predators…. Yes, they would like to break his beautiful
delicate shell. They would drop him out of his nest and watch him
smash on the ground far below then walk away without a second
glance."

If only the Wentworths could keep to themselves, they might be able
to continue their shared delusion of their own superiority. But
when they get inextricably caught up with a couple of outsiders,
this powerful clan might just be brought to its knees once and for
all.

Arnoldi has a lot of fun deriding her characters' foibles, both the
harmless ones and the truly disturbing tendencies. Readers, too,
will laugh almost in spite of themselves at the author’s
wickedly funny descriptions of the Wentworths' opinions of
themselves and others. Broken up into many short chapters,
alternating among various characters' viewpoints (some told in
first person, others in third person), Arnoldi constructs a
remarkably detailed family portrait of sorts in this slim but
deadly clever novel.

Granted, this family portrait is certainly not one we'd ever like
to see hanging in our living room --- or even in the living room of
any of our friends --- but Arnoldi's tragicomic sendup of the
Wentworths' decline and fall (and rise again?) is riveting
nonetheless. THE WENTWORTHS is the kind of novel that will remind
readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that the rich
"are different than you and I" and have them thanking their lucky
stars that that's so.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011

The Wentworths
by Katie Arnoldi

  • Publication Date: March 13, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1585679992
  • ISBN-13: 9781585679997