For most of us, the possession of money is much more interesting than its pursuit. It is not money as money we want, but money as a trip to Europe, a new car, a designer dress. No sooner does the dollar march in than we march it out again, trade it away for something real.
Not Deborah de Kronengold. She is the daughter of the de Kronengolds, international bankers whose family tree more closely resembles the kudzu vine, creeping all over Europe and rooting in every important financial center. Making money is what the de Kronengolds do, and in each generation there are some who do it better than the others. Grandfather Samuel, who had gilded his age, sees in Deborah the same ability.
But wait! Deborah is adopted, and her father, rightful heir to the Midas touch, so resents this upstart daughter that he manages to disinherit her, leaving her to make her way to America with only $200 in her pocket.
Deborah misses a lot of good movies in the next few years, settling in each night with a pile of financial reports, but her diligence pays off. Soon she is one of the world's richest women, ready to pay back Daddy by engineering a series of increasingly implausible financial coups whose success rests on the assumption that everyone but Deborah is a ninny.
Deborah (red hair, sapphire eyes, beautiful) is surrounded by people who are as one-dimensional as she is, which would be all right if there were something else to occupy the eye and draw us on. But the plot hinges on a series of financial coups, and the author insists that we know exactly how each one works. One longs for those fictional tycoons who barked, "I'll ruin you," and then did so without troubling the reader with the intricacies of their buy-and-sell orders.
But it's money that makes the book go round, and it's money that links the characters, whose personal relations have the passionate intensity of a bank statement. The men are a flimsy crew, more sleazy than evil, and Deborah herself is a victim of that modern malady -- the need to figure out exactly why she does what she does. Is she unable to trust men because, at an impressionable age, she learned she was adopted? Is she attracted to rotten men because her father was such a bad egg? Is this really the way the world's richest tycoons think when they take a break from destroying the competition?
The fact that the characters lack depth makes it impossible for them to connect to each other and equally impossible to represent their times. Therefore, the author has chosen to use bridging sections to remind us what year it is. There is England, circa 1963: "Soon those on the bottom of the social pyramid would no longer be satisfied to do the bidding of those on top. Workers would strike at the slightest provocation, a good part of the time simply out of pent-up frustration. The young would idolize rock musicians and fashion designers and would have money to spend. Young women would take the Pill and no longer feel restrained by that last specter guarding sexual morality, fear of pregnancy. Great Britain was not yet swinging, but deep out to sea the earth had shifted, and a tidal wave was sweeping inexorably toward the tight little island."
Time flies when you're making money, and soon it is the '70s in America, where, "Disgusted with the improbity of its leaders, the citizenry elected an unknown as president in 1976, a man whose conception of America's role was similarly shrunken. An intelligent but naive and provincial Georgian evangelist, Jimmy Carter, replaced an experienced Gerald Ford, who had made the mistake of pardoning his predecessor, inadvertently tarring himself with Nixon's brush . . . In the spring of 1980, America's impotency seemed to be symbolized by its president's futile maneuvering to obtain the release of fifty-two Americans still held hostage in Iran by Islamic zealots. The latter had overthrown the Shah's pro-American government in a revolution the U.S. had neither anticipated nor aided in forcibly defending against but, rather, had inflamed by granting the Shah sanctuary for medical reasons."
Aside from the fact that it takes dedication to untangle that last sentence -- which, in any event, amounts to nothing but simplistic summarizing -- the prickly politics are so completely at odds with the apolitical plot that the reader has to wonder what in heaven's name is going on. (Gerald Ford pops up just as oddly one more time, escorting Deborah to some Washington event.) The book's focus on finance may have kept it from succeeding as a novel, but at least "Birthright" has more sex scenes than The Wall Street Journal.