I don’t norally say things like this, but I think it’s an entirely apt assessment, and I couldn’t get it out of my head the whole time I was reading this. Entitlement is Dirty Sexy Money meets A Separate Peace. For those not in the know (and judging by that fact that it’s being canceled—yet another little pleasure I’ll have to let go of—not many of you are), Dirty Sexy Money is about how lawyer Nick George’s adult life is turned upside down as he takes responsibility for cleaning up the various messes made by the Darling family, the inconceivably wealthy family he was close to when growing up. A Separate Peace is of course the vaguely homo-erotic novel about coming of age at a private school that everyone who went to public school in Ontario was made to read in high school in the 1990s. Entitlement is more or less about Andy Kronk’s relationship with the obscenely wealthy Aspinall family, whom he met after getting a scholarship to Lord Simcoe College, supposedly a stand-in for Upper Canada College. Other reviews have indicated that I’m suppose to make something of that connection, either that it’s an indictment or a misrepresentation of a cultural touchstone, or something of that magnitude. I’ll let you in on a little secret. It may be because I come from a lower middle class background, or because I grew up in an isolated rural community, but there’s only two reasons that I even know Upper Canada College exists. First, Robertson Davies was a student there, and I went through a phase where I learned everything I could about him (I even have a copy of Judith Skelton Grant’s Man of Myth around somewhere). Second, a few years ago there was some controversy over whether or not the ailing, underfunded public school system would subsidize the stupidly rich sending their already disproportionately advantaged children to similar private schools, and I read about it in Maclean’s. Shinan Govani (who reviewed Entitlement for the National Post, a review so bad I won’t link to it here, a review that contained no information that couldn’t be gleaned from the first fifty or so pages, I might add, even then getting some of the details wrong, and is yet another in a long procession of Post book reviews by people who know fuck all about books—perhaps it’s a good thing they don’t have a dedicated books section after all) would have me believe that because I own a television and live within a mile of Sky Bar that I am somehow expected to have this knowledge swimming in my blood with all the plasma and white and red cells. I do not.
Okay, my own class sensitivity aside, Entitlement is a damned fine book. It’s easy to go through the motions with the rich, especially if one isn’t part of that life. Bennett never allows the Aspinalls to sink into parody or cliché, though not because they never do anything clichéd; rather they are self-aware, understanding that they fit quite comfortably into several of the stereotypes, but are entirely unwilling to apologize for what they are. They are quite alien and graceful, and above all, credible. It’s Andry Kronk, who aside from Trudy the biographer is far and away the most recognizably human of the characters (not because Bennett lacks skill in describing the Aspinalls, but rather because they are so isolated from day to day living that they are as functionally different from your or I as is a person with an extreme case of Asperger’s) who treads the line most delicately when it comes to stereotypes, with his hockey obsessed, mechanic father, his lust, his drive to be a part of the LSC world only to find that he doesn’t quite fit, but Bennett never lets him slide under. It’s no surprise that even his gentle brush with the family (one almost wants to capitalize that) nearly destroys him. Though Stuart Aspinall never quite morphed into Donald Sutherland for me, I found it impossible to read about Fiona without seeing Natalie Zea running around in her skivvies pouting about how unfair it was that her fifth wedding was limited to a fifteen million dollar budget. We bring such baggage to these things. That Colin, the inconvenient, rebellious Aspinall, able to overhear himself (as Bloom would have it) to a degree none of the others can ever quite manage, separates himself from that life is not unexpected, though unraveling his ultimate fate is the chief engine of the novel’s suspense, which was unexpected.
Entitlement has been compared to The Great Gatsby, and I suppose that it’s a fair comparison, though unlike Fitzgerald, Bennett seems to understand that prose can be made to do more than evoke a mood and snipe at one’s friends.