“Pain is felt only when pain is felt!” CeCe Somner declares to herself a quarter of the way through Sophie McManus’ debut novel, The Unfortunates. The numbness she seeks is to the psychic torment of multiple system atrophy, a cousin of Parkinson’s, and the numerous frustrations of participating in a clinical trial for a drug that she hopes will halt its progression. Until her “opulent decline” in her chicly gray-haired 70s, CeCe has been a social queen and–speaking of psychic torment–a manipulative mother to Patricia, a lesbian whose sexuality has estranged her from the family, and to George, whose transgressions drive McManus’ story of blue-blooded sangfroid.
CeCe is a steely broad, master of the Wasp zinger, who might call to mind Olive Kitteridge were it not for bank accounts to conjure Brooke Astor or Gloria Vanderbilt. (McManus researched and acknowledges both, along with Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster.) She grew up the spoiled daughter of a robber baron–a rubber baron, in fact–to become the spoiled ex-wife of a financier.
McManus misses none of the characteristics of her chosen species: “Mineral-blue eyes, turtled and almost lashless; translucent skin; chinless as pilgrims. Expensive teeth. Hairlines high up on their foreheads, alien, royal” goes the description of a pair of family friends. The exception is Iris, George’s stunner of a wife, plucked from the obscurity of checking coats and plopped into a lush life slinging condos in Stockport. In CeCe’s eyes, Iris is insurmountably hardscrabble, a gold digger–and “the good daughter she never had.” She’s also one of the novel’s only endearing characters, one for whom McManus seems to have affection.
But disliking some of her cast makes for a powerful read. Especially in the case of George, strange and dangerous as he descends into the mental illness that has chased him all his life and leads him to subsidize the production of an opera, The Burning Papers, for which he has written a libretto about the end of civilization. It is panned as a racist folly, and it hastens the Somners’ fall from the heights of pride, prejudice and privilege.
McManus on the page is as measured and purposeful as her doyenne. The Unfortunates is the opposite of un-put-downable; it’s easy to steep yourself, take a break and then get sucked back in, like a Somner in the thrall of his own legacy.
This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.