Jill's Reviews > Rich Boy

Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz
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Sep 03, 10

Read from August 30 to September 03, 2010

Family sagas have long been a staple among American best-sellers; the examples are wide and vast, The very predictability of the family saga genre promises an absorbing yet familiar reading experience: the once-poor yet highly attractive and charismatic main character who overcomes all kinds of adversities, goes through heartbreak and scandal, and then emerges older, wiser, and in most cases, wealthier than before (or at the very least, with enough knowledge to BECOME wealthier).

Sharon Pomerantz mines this territory once more with Rich Boy, a novel infused with a heavy dose of melodrama combined with the realism of growing up American and Jewish in the pivotal years of the 60s through the 80s.

Robert Vishniak is a character on the rise. We meet him when he is a pre-teen, pickpocketing his rich relative’s wallet so that his father will not have to experience the shame of losing at a card game. The stage is set: we know he is resourceful and will do whatever it takes to succeed.

In the years ahead, Robert will show his resourcefulness in many ways: with his well-heeled college roommate who harbors a “shameful” (in some eyes) secret, with his unprecedented rise in his chosen law firm, with his choice of stunning women (all of whom are inevitably drop-dead gorgeous, sexually aggressive, and somewhat manipulative). He will also experience adversity with his first true love – Gwendolyn, an extremely fragile, socially conscious, vulnerable, and yes, gorgeous and doomed young woman.

Sharon Pomerantz is at her best when she delves into an exploration of Jewish-American life in the 1960s-1980s: the one-time outsiders assimilating and taking their deserved place within the social hierarchy. The clash between the impoverished and frugal world that Robert shares with his birth family and the opportunities that are opening themselves for him is crisply done. Here is Robert, reflecting on the privileged life he shares with his moneyed wife and their young daughter: “Why now, when his daughter never needed to step inside a subway, and every major possession they owned came with insurance and an alarm, why now did he feel so nervous, as if he had woken up in the wrong life – a life lived from car windows and behind locked doors?”

The paranoia of the Nixon years, the real estate and commodities boom and bust, the drug culture and over-the-top parties of the affluent, the wheeling-dealing of law firms – all this is handled with aplomb. Less successfully done is the focus on his Robert’s many relationships. The women are mostly caricatures: the self-destructive and forever-remembered first love, the cold and moneyed wife, the young-and-genuine actress on the cusp of discovery…as readers, we’ve met these women before.

Still, this is a particularly American story – a Jewish-American story – of the class divides between rich and poor, rich and obscenely rich. It’s a story of “a family built for the 1970s.” Those who like straightforward, old-fashioned, rags-to-riches sagas will likely enjoy Rich Boy a great deal.


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