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A novel about how a financial crisis like that of 2008—in the book set in 2002—emerged and was averted and the people behind the scenes.

Adam Haslett constructs his story as a crossover between a moral play and a social novel.

On the ‘good’ side Charlotte Graves, an elderly history teacher living in the company of her ‘speaking’ dogs, who fights to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of her small town Finden.

On the ‘villain’ side, Doug Fanning, a young banker without scruples who tosses around millions, then billions, to raise the share value of his bank and his bonus. With eighteen, he fights in the Kuwait war and brings down a civilian plane by mistake. He comes from the same town like Charlotte Graves, but is of lower socio-economic background—and the reader is encouraged to excuse his ‘banal evil’ as having to do something with his background and his war experience. With the first big money he makes on the financial market, he builds himself a huge mansion across the small cottage of the Graves family, thus eliciting Charlotte’s rage and her recourse to justice.

America’s soul, which, metaphorically-speaking, is still being fought over, is portrayed by the secondary characters:
• Henry Graves, Charlotte’s brother and the president of the New York Federal Reserve, is basically a ‘good’ man, who is still doing a good job. But the system he is supposed to supervise is rapidly growing out of control and forcing him into actions that are not really kosher.
• Then, there is Nate, Charlotte’s pupil, another boy from the gutter, who is attentive to her words, considering her arguments and following “the rhythm of her words”—one of those few who may, through knowledge, be able to give up his illiberal “first self” in favour of a better one (p.124). But Nate is also very impressed by Doug, in whom he falls in love. He will do anything to remain his lover—including stealing Charlotte’s documents to help Doug’s case in court.

The novel is instructive about the ways of operation of our financial system. The latter is portrayed as a bazaar in which money has no utility other than itself—pretty much a Marxist interpretation. But its characters are obvious, too black and white, with the greys lacking shadows and, as a result, the story is a bit on the predictable side. No major surprises, including that our capitalist system is saved—for now.