Book Review: 'The Recessionistas'

Readers: Enjoy and learn from the inimitable Alexandra Lebenthal. 'The Recessionistas' is a triumphant debut. Photo: Gideon Lewin

WASHINGTON—August 15, 2011 –The Recessionistas, Alexandra Lebenthal’s debut novel is informative and fun. It’s simply fiction at its best. The novel’s characters are fascinating because they are so familiar to any reader who follows the headline news from the business world. Better yet, it’s set in a year that’s all too familiar to those who closely read their bank and brokerage statement. It’s the fall of 2008.

And who better to pen a novel on this controversial period than Alexandra Lebenthal? She’s the socially prominent President and CEO of Lebenthal & Co., and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Inc. Her father is well-known Jim Lebenthal, who made his name in municipal bonds.

Alexandra Lebenthal knows how Wall Street really works, not just the surface stuff you read in the newspapers. The Recessionistas is the real deal, the inside story with a social twist. It’s set in the secretive world of high finance, but it’s also colored by the social activities that the author herself writes about in her blog, “New York Social Diary.” 

Alexandra Lebenthal.

Alexandra Lebenthal. (Credit: Gideon Lewin.)

Lebenthal takes us back to that terrifying autumn of 2008 when the stock market crashed and the derivatives-plagued real estate bubble finally burst, pitching the entire U.S. economy over the cliff in the process. Orbiting around the catastrophic Lehman Brothers failure, the lives of Lebenthal’s characters undergo cataclysmic change.

First, there’s Sasha Silver, a Wall Street CEO who sold her company, fortuitously, in 2005. Her partners retired, leaving her to be ignored by their new, macho managers. On one level, this isn’t a major concern. She has plenty of money, a loving husband, happy children, a nice apartment, and, well, plenty of money. Yet as a professional, she is still concerned about her good reputation as a businesswoman.

Elsewhere, savvy Renee Parker has been hired as the new executive assistant to hedge fund titan John Cutter. She’s is convinced that somewhere, there is a mystery to solve. Cutter himself has issues, particularly his soon to be ex-wife who lost in her own world. The creative girl he married has gradually slipped away from him, becoming a colorful character on the social scene and getting lost in the process behind her dramatic façade.

Socialite Grigsby Somerset is unaware of the tectonic changes that are rapidly occurring in the financial world and has no interest in hearing anything about it. She claims she doesn’t understand technical jargon and doesn’t care. She just wants to maintain her high-flying lifestyle and expects those credit card bills to be paid before she maxes them out again. Problem is, she and her once-wealthy husband are now broke.

These characters and others provide Lebenthal the opportunity to explore the gamut of experiences as the Great Recession unfolds. They also provide a convenient excuse to explain the inside workings of Wall Street investment arcana like the assembling of mortgage tranches and the marketing of credit default swaps.

'The Recessionistas.' Cover art.

‘The Recessionistas.’ Cover art.

These complex transactions, dimly understood even by those who created them, were the dirty secret behind the cascading fiscal problems that eventually engulfed the world economy. But Lebenthal makes them easier to grasp, a rarity in today’s world of fiction.

She also details the lives of the rich and famous, namely, how families with huge salaries live precariously from bonus to bonus, financing this year’s expenses by counting on next year’s bonuses, an outrageously high stakes version of Joe Sixpack living from paycheck to paycheck with no thought of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, when Lehman went belly up and the markets tanked, there were no more bonuses to keep these high fliers afloat. The party was over.

Although Lebenthal’s novel takes place in the glitzy world of New York high finance, the colossal size of the financial crash and the sheer shock of it for those who didn’t see it coming, is eminently understandable for everyday families have been laid off, had their salaries cut, or have watched the value of their home sink slowly under water. The extent of the damage in The Recessionistas is extreme, but it also serves as a parable about the grim rewards that await those who indulge in greed, hubris, or both.

For a book about wealthy high-flyers and their spendthrift wives, The Recessionistas is a surprisingly sympathetic tale. Not all Lebenthal’s characters are likeable. Yet there is enough depth in them to keep readers interested while still giving them hope that tomorrow’s post-recession world will be a better one than today’s.

Readers interested in big business and high society will enjoy Lebenthal’s storytelling and might even find themselves fascinated to learn more about business than they every might discover otherwise. For a first novel, The Recessionistas is a triumphant debut.

The Recessionistas, by Alexandra Lebenthal. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011. ISBN 9780446563673. 336 pages.

Financial maven and new novelist Alexandra Lebenthal currently serves as a board member of the School of American Ballet and is involved with several other leading New York cultural institutions including The Business Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Capital Campaign for the Museum of the City of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.

Read more book reviews in The Written Word at The Communities at the Washington Times.  Cecie O’Bryon England is the editor of Arts and Literature at Donne Tempo Magazine.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Cecie O'Bryon England

Cecie O'Bryon England is a writer, reader, and artist who lives with her husband, the musician, John Henry England, and their two children, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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