But forget the bedrooms. In a market saturated with 50 shades of concupiscence, what additional sexual detail could modern fiction possibly reveal? Lanchester knows that what really piques our curiosity is other people’s money, and in one cascading paragraph after another, he unrolls the grand ledger of our desires. That breathless accounting reaches its climax in his portrayal of the Yount family at 51 Pepys Rd. Richard Yount, a handsome investment banker, thinks nothing of spending 30,000 pounds on a hunting rifle for a weekend outing. He’s still capable of feeling a twinge at the “slightly revolting sign of excess,” but he and his wife, Arabella, can barely keep hold of the fire hose of money spraying from their wallets on country homes, designer clothing and exotic vacations. (What most people pay for a car, Arabella spends to redo the lighting in her dressing room.) It’s all itemized here to the nearest 10,000 pounds, along with the network of personal staff meant to keep Richard and Arabella from ever enduring a moment’s interaction with their young children. Written in a voice that captures the Younts’ blithe egotism, this section is the most delightful response I’ve ever read to those execrable stories about how difficult it is to get by on “just” $250,000 a year.
As you can probably tell, there’s a strong populist theme running through Lanchester’s survey of London, a sense that inane distortions at the top of the economic register are ruining life for everyone who actually works for a living by doing something of value. But that lovely liberal ideal crimps the novel’s moral imagination: Its rich people are foolish and extravagant; its poor people are hardworking and ethical. Such a rule does not produce much surprise. Despite his command with the excesses of the period, Lanchester seems unwilling to make us gasp, to confront us with the truly creepy things people will do when cursed by extreme poverty or absurd wealth. The result is a novel that, for all its variety, works from a fairly predictable palette.