Thursday, August 28, 2008

Guest Review: Absolute Scandal

I'm so happy that Melissa is joining us again today with another fabulous review. This time it's AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL by Penny Vincenzi.

Summary: Penny Vincenzi, master of the contemporary blockbuster, returns with a moving, engaging portrait of people coping with a notorious financial disaster and its unpredictable emotional repercussions.

Set during the boom-and-bust years of the 1980s, An Absolute Scandal follows the lives of a group of people drawn together by their mutual monetary woes when the great financial institution Lloyd's undergoes a devastating downturn. For Nigel Cowper, this means the destruction of his family business; his wife, Lucinda, is willing to do everything she can to help him—except give up her irresistible lover. The powerful, charismatic banker Simon Beaumont and his wife, a highly successful advertising executive, lose everything they worked so hard to acquire; but the ultimate tragedy is something that neither one could have anticipated. The well-to-do are not the only ones suffering: a self-sufficient widow is suddenly deep in debt; a single mother struggles to maintain a comfortable home for her children; and a schoolmaster and his frustrated wife find that financial problems deepen the cracks in their troubled marriage.

As their lives begin a downward spiral, these characters intersect in ways they never saw coming. Written in what has become her signature style of both wit and candor, Penny Vincenzi draws back the curtain and offers an inside view of the greed and social power plays that occur behind the closed doors of upper-crust society . . . where money isn’t everything. Sometimes, it’s the only thing. -- Doubleday

At the heart of this beautifully written novel is this simple question: What would you do if you lost everything (financially) you had? Most of us don’t even want to begin to contemplate that scenario. For me, this was really touchy subject material. The whole time I was reading this book, I kept thinking about how my husband and I always agonize over our financial situation. Are we doing the right things with our investments? Are we on track for saving for our retirement? Is our financial advisor leading us down the right path? We also spend a lot of time on the “what ifs.” What if we hadn’t bought that stock that plummeted instead of skyrocketing? What if we had sold that property in California when real estate went through the roof instead of when we did?

I have to admit that I really didn’t know that much about Lloyds of London and the scandal in the 1980’s that this story revolves around, so this was a bit of a history lesson for me. But for me, that’s one of the great things about reading – learning something new. So, for those of you who do not know much about what happened (and are interested), a brief synopsis: Lloyds of London insurance policies were underwritten by a large group of private investors called “Names.” The theory was that individual liability would be limited due to the large pool across which the risk was spread. Traditionally, the opportunity to become a Name was by invitation only. And for a very long time, being a Name was synonymous with “risk free” investing that resulted in very large returns. Sounds pretty sweet, right? So what happened to throw the train off the track in the 80’s? A plethora of unforeseen (according to Lloyds) claims from American workers suffering from asbestos related diseases dating back to the 1940’s. All of sudden, instead of enjoying large returns that they had come to expect, the Names were slapped with huge assessments – and not just one time hits. And not only had the Names taken on unlimited liability for claims arising in the future, they could also be held responsible for claims from the past. The consequence for many members was financial ruin, resulting in countless bankruptcies and tragically, a number of suicides.

Penny Vincenzi packs a lot of punch into this one book. Not only does she detail how the lives of five families are affected by the Lloyds catastrophe, but she manages to weave their stories together seamlessly. This is really the mark of a gifted author. Although AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL is fiction, it is rooted in events that really happened, and for that reason it was a little painful for me to read at times. I laid awake at night thinking about the families in the book, feeling sick over what they were faced with as I tried to imagine being in their places. Then I thought about the real people that this must have happened to, and I couldn’t sleep at all.

I will admit that the one thing that bothered me about the narrative was the amount of infidelity that took place among the characters. With that being said, the author doesn’t dwell on the depressing aspects of the Lloyds catastrophe. Instead, she uses it as a vehicle to illustrate the best of human nature and how when faced with devastating events, we have the strength to rise above tragedy. I would recommend AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL to anyone looking for a heartrending and thought-provoking read.

Thanks so much, Melissa. This book sounds amazing, and I can't wait to read it! AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL sounds like it might make for some interesting conversation. If you are considering this book for a future book club, there is a reading guide available here.


Cheryl said...

Nice review Melissa

Jill said...

I really enjoyed Sheer Abandon, so I need to check this out...thanks for the great review.

S. Krishna said...

I have been looking forward to reading this one, as I really liked Sheer Abandon - thanks for the review!

Serena said...

This sounds like something I should read since I have written many articles about the scandal. It would be interesting to see how accurate the facts are.