Book review: ‘The Recessionistas’ by Alexandra Lebenthal

For these New Yorkers, life as they knew it — drowning in wealth, lacking in morals — is about to come to an end.

It’s an unsettling economic time when Grigsby Somerset, a primping socialite, is working tirelessly to get her 4-year-old in just the “right” private school — just as Blake, her investment banker husband, finds himself mired in a cataclysmic mess. He’s gotten himself on the wrong end of a deal with John Cutter, a caustic hedge fund owner, and the consequences could be dire.

Nearby is Sasha Silver, a powerful woman on Wall Street who only learns of serious changes within her company through office whisperings. Worried she’s being kept purposely out of the loop, Sasha has to wise up — and get some answers. Through the encouragement of her friend Renee Parker, John Cutter’s new executive assistant, she must struggle to keep afloat in a great period of financial stress. Like everyone in The Recessionistas.

Alexandra Lebenthal’s debut novel sets the stage beautifully: it’s the day after Labor Day in 2008, just before the U.S. markets seemed to spiral into a complete and utter meltdown. In 2010, hearing newscasters trumpet “The Great Recession” doesn’t seem to faze us too much; after all, we’ve been living in a period of high unemployment, foreclosures and instability for years now. But looking back to the “before,” it’s easy — for some of us — to remember those feelings of prosperity, and the misguided belief that the good times would  never end.

But they did. For many Americans, and for everyone in The Recessionistas.

What worked for me was Lebenthal’s way of dropping us into a story and immediately giving us enough background on each character to understand how and why they were acting as they did. Basically, I didn’t suffer from Too Many Character-itis because the author provided enough information for us to have a clear understanding of each person’s relationship to one another — and yes, they were all connected. Somehow. Though the first 100 pages or so were merely setting the stage for everyone’s inevitable downfall, it didn’t feel taxing to me.

But here’s my beef with this one. While I understood each character, I didn’t feel like I got to know them — on any deeper level. And because I didn’t know them well enough to hate or love them, this ended up being a pretty “meh” read for me. I was all gung-ho in the beginning, you know, waiting to really start to loathe these people — especially the ridiculous Grigsby Somerset — and ended up feeling . . . indifferent, sadly.

I would have enjoyed the novel far more had Lebenthal made Grigsby and her other socialite friends into larger caricatures than they actually were. Because Grigsby came across as human — and, subsequently, boring — it was hard to muster up the enthusiasm to despise or applaud her. I wanted to see her impulses strewn out onto the page, making us cheer with delight when she was forced to sell her expensive jewelry in order to afford her housekeeper (oh, the humanity!).

Of course, when you learn who that housekeeper is — and why she’s central to the story — it changes everything.

It was tough, too, for me to get past the stilted and very unrealistic dialogue, and that’s what soured me most on the book. Of all my reading pet peeves — and Lord knows there are many — the largest sin of all was committed in these here pages. Example, paraphrased for your convenience and mine:

“Grigsby, we’re going to have to cut back on some things.”

“But Blake, I don’t want to cut back. I like being a diamond-dripping trophy wife.”

“Well, Grigsby, I don’t know what to tell you. Life is going to get tougher.”

“I won’t accept it, Blake. I just won’t.”

See? See what I did there? See all those names floating across the page, included in just about every line of dialogue?

People don’t talk like that. I certainly don’t talk like that. And if you’re, um, married to someone and you still feel the need to address them by name every time you speak to them, some larger issues are at work there.

And yes, the whole book felt like that.

I’m not going to tell you The Recessionistas was a bad read — because it wasn’t. Huge paragraphs on intricate financial workings aside, this was a quick read that smacked of truth for me — mostly because it’s dealing with a time in American history that we’re all living in. It’s contemporary fiction at its most pure, because it’s still happening. And that, alone, was interesting enough to keep me reading. And wondering how it all will end.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0738715042 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from The Book Chick

9 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Recessionistas’ by Alexandra Lebenthal

  1. I have seen this book around and have been wondering how it is. I’m glad to have read your review! It sounds like it comes across how I’d feared: as “meh”. Characters like these have to be huge, I think, in order to work.

    And the dialogue? *shudder* I’m not sure I could take it. I think one of the quickest ways to get me to stop believing in a character is to have everything they say elicit a gigantic eye-roll.


  2. This definitely doesn’t sound like a book for me. The whole idea just doesn’t appeal to me and all of the things you pointed out especially this:

    “I like being a diamond-dripping trophy wife.”

    More than them putting too many names into sentences, NO one says a sentence like that. There are much more realistic ways to get this same point across.

    Great review, as usual, Meg!


  3. Yes, dialogue can certainly make or break a book. It’s strange for me here in Australia to read about the world recession, because our economy has stayed steady, thanks to coal, iron ore, and other resources. It must have come as a big shock to those living large when the financial market crashed; I think those reverberations were felt all around the world.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. 🙂


  4. It’s really disappointing to hear about the lame aspects of this book, because I really want to find a good, fictional account of that period. There have been so many dry, economicsy accounts attempting to explain how it all went wrong, but I’m yet to see a convincing fictional account which counts the human cost. I need writers to explain global events to me, not theorists!


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