Tracy Dobmeier/Wendy Katzman – Girls with Bright Futures

Tracy Dobmeier/Wendy Katzman – Girls with Bright Futures

Elliott Bay Academy surely is the best school you can find in Seattle. Thus, the kids of the superrich can be found there, making friends who can be useful later in life. Yet, when college admission process starts, things become a bit tense since now, they are competing for places at the best universities. Alicia Stone is quite relaxed even though her daughter isn’t he brightest, but her money can make up for this. A huge donation to Stanford, a professor to write the essays – this should be enough to secure the place. Kelly, who herself attended Stanford, also wants to get her daughter in. Krissie’s results are brilliant but due to the limited financial means, Kelly must use information and especially gossip to bring her girl into a good starting position. The fight will be hard, especially when the prestigious university announces to only accept one pupil from EBA. Alicia and Kelly can do the maths: it will be difficult to pass Winnie, outstanding and excelling student of a single parent mother with no means or connections. Mothers can become tigers when they fight for their kids, but Winnie’s mum Maren never would have believed that they would be ready to kill her girl to get what they want.

If it wasn’t for the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, I would classify Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s novel highly entertaining but far from reality. However, the fraud revealed showed that this isn’t a topic parents take easy but are willing to risk everything just to get a place at the supposedly best school. Living in a country where university admission works in a totally different way and where the idea of top universities you have to have graduated from to have the chance of a career is more or less non-existent, it is fascinating and repellent at the same time to look in the characters’ heads and to follow their trains of thought.

The whole story is centred around the three mother-daughter-teams, yet, that’s all they share. Alicia is in a top position of a tech company and her outstanding career makes her a well-known and admired person everywhere. Her tough workday has some secondary effects, though, she somehow has lost connection with her daughter and doesn’t care about her feelings or wishes but expects her to comply with her commands just as her employees and her husband. Kelly and Krissie’s relationship isn’t healthy either, the girl can hardly support the pressure that her parents put on her. Winnie and Maren are in a totally different situation. Winnie is gifted and has set her mind on going to Stanford, she’s got no help at all, but worked hard for her dream and is convinced that she deserves it. Maren loves her daughter but she also knows that the price will be high if Winnie is accepted: working for Alicia she will surely lose her job and not easily find anything else. She knows her boss well and she has no doubts about what Alicia is capable of when she is angered by someone. Nevertheless, Maren cannot believe that Alicia might be behind the hit-and-run that nearly kills Winnie.

It is these mixed feelings between fascination and utter disgust that keep you reading. More than once I thought this is totally unbelievable but then, well, the mothers are competing about the top position in the game of “who is willing to go to the maximum and throw all scruples and morals overboard”. Simultaneously, seeing who many characters suffer, what this behaviour does to the families and, first and foremost, the daughters, is totally sad.

Hilariously narrated with wonderfully crafted characters and also interesting side plots, an outstanding novel which, if it weren’t for its lengths, I would have read in one sitting.

Cristina Alger – The Darlings

cristina alger the darlings
Cristina Alger – The Darlings

The Darlings are one of new York’s most famous families. Carter Darling’s investment company makes tons of money, mother Ines is still the most stunning woman at all gala events and their two daughters Merrill and Lily have found perfectly fitting husbands and fulfil their roles of the clever and the beautiful also impeccably. When one of Carter’s business partners commits suicide, the family has to face a crisis they have never seen before and, first and foremost, they have to admit that some things are just not what they pretended them to be: Carter is not the honest businessman, Ines is not the wife who still loves him after all those decades together, and family does not come first, when they feel threatened. What starts with one man taking his life, ends in one of the biggest finance scandals New York has ever seen and the Darlings are at the very centre of it.

Cristina Alger’s novel is a combination of a highly complex financial fraud thriller and a very personal family drama in which almost all characters are put to a test: what are their values, how far are they willing to go to protect their loved ones, how much more important can money be than the lives of people? The mechanics of both, the financial world and a family with their closest friends, are laid open and show the darkest corners of human nature.

Admittedly, “The Darlings” is not a fast paced thriller which keeps you alert all the time. Even though the plot covers just a couple of days and actually moves quite quickly, the author chose to rather go into depths with her characters which I liked a lot since it gives a lot more insight in their thoughts and makes their decision-making a great deal more comprehensible. The sheer number of characters wasn’t easy to manage at the beginning and understanding the connection between them took some time, but in the end, it was all very cleverly connected and set up and no questions was left unanswered. This might be difficult for some readers who prefer a speedy thrill, yet, for those who like stories about human beings and their nature, it is a great read.

Alison James – The Man She Married

Alison James – The Man She Married

It is a pure coincidence that Alice makes the acquaintance of Dominic Gill. After her former fiancé had cancelled their wedding only days before it was supposed to take place, she didn’t really expect to meet anybody else to fall for. Dominic seems to be totally crazy asking her to marry him only weeks after they got to know each other, but why wait any longer if you feel it’s the right thing to do? Yet, there are some things they should have discussed before making the big step, e.g. do they want to have a baby, and it would have made sense to meet his mother and brother, but Alice does not worry too much about these things. Then one evening the police knock at her door and inform her about her husband’s death. When she comes to identify him, Dom’s brother is there insisting that the dead body does not belong to Dominic Gill. So who was Alice married to?

“The Man She Married” is a fast-paced thriller that shows how easily even intelligent and self-confident people may fall prey to fraudsters. As a reader, you are well aware of what is going on and at times, I got really annoyed with Alice’s mindlessness and naiveté, yet, I cannot say for sure that blinded by love I would assess Dom’s behaviour differently. With the main character’s sudden death, I wondered what else there was to come, but unexpectedly, Alison James made the hunt for Dominic’s real past as interesting as his deception of Alice.

Even though I have some doubts if it really is that easy to get fake identities or to take over somebody else’s life and to manage to keep up the facade of two lives simultaneously, I found it a gripping and spell-binding read.

Clare Clark – In the Full Light of the Sun

Clare Clark – In the Full Light of the Sun

The 1920s are tough in post-war Germany, but the show must go on and the art market flourishes despite all economic struggles. Yet, where money can be made, fraudsters aren‘t far away. Julius is a Berlin based art dealer and specialist in van Gogh; Rachmann is a young Düsseldorf art expert who is hoping to make a career in the business, too; Emmeline is a talented artist and rebel. Since the art world is a small one, their paths necessarily cross and one of the biggest frauds in art links them.

I have been a lover of novels set in the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin since this was a most inspiring and interesting time of the town. Not just big politics after the loss in the first word war and then the rise of the Nazi party, but also the culture and entertainment industries were strong and the whole world looked at the German capital. Quite logically, Clare Clark‘s novel caught my interest immediately. However, I am a bit disappointed because the book couldn‘t live up to the high expectations.

I appreciate the idea of narrating the scandal from three different perspectives and points in time. The downside of this, however, was that the three parts never really merge into one novel but somehow remain standing next to each other linked only loosely. At the beginning, I really enjoyed the discussions about art and van Gogh‘s work, but this was given up too quickly and replaced with the characters‘ lamentations and their private problems which weren‘t that interesting at all and made reading the novel quite lengthy.