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Book Review

Social commentary, and a seduction of sorts

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2010

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You know the George Bernard Shaw play: Higgins bets Pickering that he can turn flower-selling street waif Eliza into a well-dressed lady who speaks proper English.

This time the setting is New York and Maine. The “flower girl’’ is India Palmer, a 38-year-old novelist with four critically acclaimed books to her credit, none of which has sold more than 5,000 copies. She’s married to Theodor, a moderately successful sculptor. Billionaire banker Win Johns, the Higgins stand-in, bets his boss that he can turn starving artist India into a successful bond trader. To this mix Martha McPhee adds a riches-to-rags story: Family friend Will, a successful banker, wants to abandon his Wall Street life to become a writer and inherit India’s life as starving artist.

In her new novel, “Dear Money,’’ McPhee tenders a funny, generous piece of social commentary, populated by a cast of characters who are amusingly, painfully human.

The story begins at a cottage in Maine where India and Theodor meet up with Will and his wife, Emma. Soon Win, a friend of Will and Emma, flies in on his biplane, finds himself charmed by India, and propositions her: “Give me eighteen months and I’ll turn you into a trader.’’ The proposition feels like a seduction after all; money is sexy and India feels as if taking the job would be akin to cheating on her husband. Still, Win keeps after her.

So, through about half the book, India contemplates leaving a life she loves to become a “Mistress of the Universe’’ — a nod to the bond-trading “Master of the Universe’’ in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,’’ which McPhee has said she read as part of her research on the lives of traders. India and her husband struggle to pay for the New York City life India wants. But they’re drowning in bills for private school for two children, nannies, and maids, and there’s the cost of theater tickets and fashionable clothes, too. Their savings accounts are dwindling, and India’s been juggling credit cards to pay off other credit cards.

Moving out of the city would solve Theodor and India’s money problems, but leaving is not an option for India, who’s very much at home in New York and will not be forced out. She’s hoping Theodor’s latest commission and the sales of her new novel will keep the family afloat. But there’s no such luck for this couple who’ve been married 13 years and who live on the 13th floor, even though it’s called the 14th.

Soon, Win escorts India to a swank arts fund-raiser at the Met. Win introduces India as his date, and our fair lady, knowing she’s being appraised, says, “How kind of you to let me come.’’ The date is the final act of seduction. India is finished with art, and she accepts Win’s offer to transform her into a mortgage-bond trader at B&B bond traders.

Operation “Pygmalion Ltd.’’ is underway.

But “Dear Money’’ seems more like “My Fair Lady’’ than Shaw’s play: the book’s satiric tone being much gentler than Shaw’s cutting examination of class division, and some of McPhee’s dialogue comes straight out of the movie musical.

This story, while fascinating, periodically gets bogged down in a glut of the history of home mortgages in the United States and with descriptions of arcane financial instruments. But generally, listening to Eliza, I mean India, learn to talk like a mortgage bond trader — Fannies, Freddies, Freddie Golds, Ginnies, jumbos, dwarfs, nuggets, midgets, and gnomes — is almost as amusing as watching Eliza speak into Higgins’s recorder.

McPhee’s writing is streamlined. The satire here is subtle, understanding, and, although not as sharply edged as Shaw’s, just as convincing. She also possesses a self-mocking sense of humor shared with her characters; she genuinely cares about them, and so avoids creating caricatures that might seem contrived to serve her sense of irony.

The result: McPhee’s characters grow — they win, they lose, they evolve. They appear human, and so are resonant and entertaining.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com.

DEAR MONEY

By Martha McPhee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pp., $25