Review: Grace and Favor by Thomas Caplan Print E-mail

grace_and_favor(San Diego Union-Tribune January 4, 1998)

Because They're Entitled Is Why

Call Thomas Caplan's novel Grace and Favor a romance of multinational capitalism, with corporate takeovers and insider trading at the heart of its pithy intrigue.

Call it also a classic tale of self-conceit, in which England's landed gentry (a notch below royalty) show that entitlement must endure, at any cost. The moral value to which this class is born is clear: Hold on to an estate, to wealth, to family honor.

And yet, according to Caplan, the gentry's most prized possession is its ability to rub out any threat against its mossy primogeniture. Caplan, an American, sets his story in England, where an American, John Brook, has married the very beautiful Julia Midleton-Lygham.

Julia and her brother Adrian have inherited the very beautiful 11th-century estate, Castlemorland, from their recently deceased parents.

Just as everything has fallen perfectly in place for Brook, a mystery arises.

It seems that the deal he is shepherding, as mergers and acquisitions manager of an international investment bank, has gotten too insider: Someone is betraying the family fortune.

Brook smells a rat. To confound the players (and us), then, is this big-time leveraged buyout of one multinational company by another which involves Brook, his young family, an immoderate cousin, a land speculator who wants to "preserve" Castlemorland by turning it and the village tenantry into a theme park, a family accountant who has too much discretion over the family's checkbook, and Brook's fellow alumni from the Harvard Business School as well as a billionaire recluse, who on his Mediterranean yacht plays hide and seek with Brook's gullibility.

To snare the insider rat, our corporate hero is set up (by his Harvard buddies) as a counter-deceiver himself, every bit as oily as the next cog in the crankcase of acquisition. Caplan is quite clever when he's recording how his characters rationalize their peerage.

Adrian, the most engagingly buffed of the novel's overly polished lot, tells Brooks that he embraces England's landowner tradition "out of love not expectation. It doesn't seem . . . well, fitting to claim credit. Anyway, one is not exactly perpetuating things; it's more the job of helping into the future those aspects of the past and present which the future seems inclined to accept. That's all."

Yet, despite Caplan's ear and stomach for the wealthy's narcissism, their self-preservation leaves the reader cold.

Ethically, the novel is nearly rescued with Brook's sincere devotion to his wife and twin children.

But despite his amiable nature, Brook increasingly rings hollow as he fawns in agreement with any decorum the family wants and any hand his deal-makers have him play.

In fact, when one of the Midleton-Lyghams dies suspiciously and no police investigation ensues, Brook zips his lips shut, too, so contagious is the family's fear of scandal. Once we see that the silence and the double-dealing—both criminal acts—are no doubt orchestrated from within Castlemorland itself, and Brook is still oblivious to the gentry's conniving, turning another page is painful. To end with the narrator abandoning his reader's moral interest is no favor, despite the graceful salvation of a family's estate.

Caplan's novel is not about the power of the people to grasp and, on occasion, reconcile the contradictions between wealth and ethical behavior; it's about learning how to pass on as much stuff as possible.