Money can’t buy happiness. But if you’re flush, why not deck your misery in diamonds and stuff your sorrows with caviar? Here are eight novels where excessive wealth enables characters to take their joylessness to the penthouse level.
“Rich and unhappy” is Fitzgerald’s forte, and readers are generally most familiar with the lovelorn Jay of The Great Gatsby. But if you’re looking for a train wreck of truly opulent proportions, look no further than the protagonist couple of The Beautiful and Damned. High-society scion Anthony Patch is lazy and vain. Gloria Gilbert is selfish and spoiled. So naturally, they get married—then proceed to tear each other apart when the money runs dry.
It’s generally believed that Scott and Zelda’s relationship inspired THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, which followed his massive hit TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Anthony Patch, an Army serviceman and heir to a tycoon’s fortune, meets and marries the wild, passionate (and sometimes selfish) Gloria Gilbert. What follows is a roller-coaster relationship that rivals its real-life counterpart.
Epic and intricate, Mizumura’s loose retelling of Wuthering Heights is set amid rising and falling fortunes in postwar Japan. Among those in descent: the three beautiful but snobby Saegusa sisters, who cocoon themselves from the reality of their diminishing status with the help of elegant furnishings and activities.Their twilight forms the backdrop for the astronomic rags-to-riches ascent of the Heathcliffesque character Taro Azuma. But for all Taro’s success, true happiness with the love of his life remains out of reach.
Syjuco’s novel takes its title from the term used to describe the Western-educated elite in the colonial Philippines: the ilustrados or enlightened ones.Indeed, two modern-day ilustrados are the leading characters: the Filipino literary giant Crispin Salvador, whose corpse is found floating in the Hudson, and his student Miguel, who flies from New York back toManila to solve the mystery behind his mentor’s death. As the narrative unfolds, we get glimpses of the privileged life Miguel has tried to flee—his politically powerful family, his hedonistic childhood friends, and the pretentious social circles that circumscribe them all.
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Set in nineteenth-century England, Great Expectations is Dickens’s timeless tale of an orphan boy’s extraordinary journey through life.
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Precocious orphan Yi Jin is brought into the royal palace at the age of five. There she grows up to become one of Queen Myeongseong’s closest attendants and companions. The splendor and luxury of court life turn to ash in Yi Jin’s mouth when the Queen turns inexplicably cold and sends her to live with a French diplomat who has become infatuated with Yi Jin. He takes her to glittering Paris, where he promises she will experience unparalleled freedom. But even the brightly lit boulevards and sophisticated literary salons can’t remedy the deep cultural isolation she experiences or staunch her yearning for home.
Our heroine is a 14-year-old from a poor fishing village in Java whom a local nobleman purchases as his wife. The girl (we are never told her name) is installed in a luxurious house and taught to regard her husband—whom she refers to as Bendoro, or Master—as the be-all and end-all of her existence. Unable to come and go as she pleases, she languishes in solitude during the long periods the Bendoro is away. The Bendoro seems far from content himself: he’s gone through several“practice wives.” Also, for health reasons he undergoes bleeding sessions with medicinal leeches, all of whom he has affectionately named.
In Wharton’s iconic novel, the gilded cage of New York high society is outfitted with iron bars. So discovers Newland Archer when he falls in love with the nonconformist social pariah, Countess Olenska. In order to pursue the countess, Archer must break off his relationship with the unblinkingly conventional May Welland. But to his terror, he finds that the bounds of supposed propriety don’t take kindly to being crossed.
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence, which explores the joys and scandals surrounding the marriage of an upper-class New York couple during the Gilded Age.
If your favorite character is Jonathan Byers
The misunderstood, unhappy kid who yearns for an East Coast college where he can forget his modest upbringing and meet sufficiently interesting friends? Sounds like Richard Papen, the narrator of Donna Tartt’s first novel, THE SECRET HISTORY.
Photo credit: Leah Diprose