From the virtual displays of human bonding in When You Read This to the intersectional quagmires of Privilege, Mary Adkins has shown a knack for navigating the messiness of personal lives and societal structures. With her third novel Palm Beach, Adkins aims to combine both perspectives into a tale of rich living and richer insight on the motivations that compel folks to climb the socioeconomic ladder — where “they could all [live] in their own separate spheres.”
Palm Beach chronicles the travails of journalist and wealth inequality connoisseur Rebecca. She and her husband Mickey — the “go-to [actor-turned-caterer] for Manhattan’s billionaire class” — try to make ends meet in New York City and care for themselves as well as their newborn Sebastian. Easier said than done, what with the lack of maternity leave for freelancers like Rebecca, plus Mickey’s need to be always on his catering feet — to the point where “his toenails had turned blue the way marathon runners’ do.”
But opportunity soon comes knocking on their door twice. First, Mickey is hired to work in Palm Beach as a caterer for the ultra-rich, uprooting Rebecca and Sebastian for the trip down to Florida. Then, Mickey is nabbed from his initial employer – and for double the pay — by newspaper magnate Cecil Stone, whose “strategy of buying companies in distress, milking them for all they’re worth, then discarding the carcasses has single-handedly destroyed the hometown newspaper in the United States.”
Presented with a chance to bolster her profile as a progressive journalist by ghostwriting the memoir of Cecil’s wife Astrid, Rebecca readily immerses herself in her new environment — leading to her presumptions about (idle) wealth being challenged.
The feeling of snug privilege is one that Adkins drives home by dropping her characters into a world of material wealth that paradoxically embraces grandeur and narrow worldviews. Socialites gather at extravagant parties to discuss topics like art and China, as well as fundraise millions of dollars “not [for] children’s education or hunger, or the trees or oceans, but rescue dogs in Palm Beach.” Rigorous routines, such as butler lessons with titles like “Advanced Butler Etiquette: Tackling the Stickiest Situations with Aplomb,” demonstrate how the rich can “afford to design an existence in which they didn’t have to concern themselves with administrative aspects.” Through these glimpses at how one on top of the world views themselves and the rest of civilization, Palm Beach highlights how those further down the socioeconomic ladder can buy into the allure of rubbing shoulders with the proverbial giants of high society.
In Rebecca’s case, getting cozy in the well of riches pays off. Through her memoir-writing, she learns more of Astrid’s indifference towards wealth and even some contradictions, like how she donates to the ACLU despite being a GOPer who doesn’t “trust the government to make good with [her] money [or] get criminal justice [reformed].” Over time, Rebecca feels guiltier about how she publicly portrays the rich, especially when acts of kindness like Cecil’s coverage of Rebecca and Mickey’s medical expenses crop up.
Although being connected to wealthy people can be beneficial, such encounters can also make the recipient of said good fortunes more self-conscious regarding material security — and sensitive to anything threatening it. Mickey is torn between wanting to go back to Manhattan and staying in Florida when his singing voice comes back from its previously raspy state, knowing that he and Rebecca would lose their newfound fortunes, but also that he’d rather be “invisible because he was in character, not invisible because he was carrying a platter of tiny soups.” Rebecca, frightened by news of her parents’ financial woes, goes as far as to perform insider trading to monetarily buttress herself. Palm Beach underscores the perils of losing sight of one’s authentic self — and their former world — with material comforts standing in the way.
That focus on material safety also leads to the narrative narrowing its perspective in the form of an illness threatening Sebastian’s life later in the story. This puts the relationship-building between Rebecca and the Stones on hold and makes the story go from a look at how lower-class folks interact with high society to a slower-paced cautionary tale about achieving material security at the expense of one’s mental wellbeing. It could be said that the prose’s narrower focus is Adkins’s way of emulating the mental narrowness of the rich, to the point where one may think that “[their] life was so perfect that [they] wouldn’t change a single thing about it if given the chance.”
Just like Rebecca, Palm Beach doesn’t mince words on the gap between the ultra-rich and those of lesser means — in terms of money and “distance of all kinds: physical, emotional, personal.” Like The Fortunate Ones and The Gifted School, Palm Beach doesn’t so much poke fun at privilege as it dissects it to have readers study the underpinnings of the rich life. It’s a life in which folks “[fly] to their private island on their private jet, and eat food prepared by their gourmet chef, and read whatever shows up on their bedside table because it was hand-selected for them.”
What elevates the novel from a mere exploration of wealth inequality is how Adkins takes the time to have Rebecca, Mickey, and the Stones reach out to one another. The author reveals not only the depth and reasoning that make wealthy folks more than meets the eye, but also wealth’s appeal and its impact on the human predilection for material comfort.
By Mary Adkins
Published August 3, 2021