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Right On The Money: A 'Capital' Book For Our Times

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Right On The Money: A 'Capital' Book For Our Times

Book Reviews

Right On The Money: A 'Capital' Book For Our Times

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Journalists, economists and historians have all weighed in on the global financial crisis. And now, it's British writer John Lanchester's turn. His new novel, "Capital," is a long reverie on money and what it represents to his cast of characters from newer immigrants to well-heeled bankers. Critic Lizzie Skurnick has a review.

LIZZIE SKURNICK, BYLINE: England has always loved its drawing room dramas, from Jane Austen to "Upstairs, Downstairs," but John Lanchester's brilliant new novel, "Capital," is the first brick-and-mortar novel set squarely in our time. It's 2008, the peak of the housing bubble. The book takes place on an ordinary block in London. Well, it used to be ordinary. The homes on Pepys Road were built in the 19th century by people willing to trade a bad neighborhood for some better digs. Now, prices have skyrocketed. But there's a worm in this budget. Someone has been taking pictures of the front doors of the street, and they're sending those photos to each house's newly wealthy owner, along with a note that says we want what you have. What is that exactly?

We wonder and so do the residents. The answers are varied, as are the characters themselves, and the book takes its time introducing us to each one. One of the delights of Lanchester's novel is the sparkling strata of London that we see here. There's Arabella, a social climbing banker's wife. Her only response to the note is an observation that no one she knows uses second- class stamps. Then there's her Polish house builder, who's traded his present-day life to save for his father's retirement.

Only Petunia Howe, the block's oldest resident, has the sense to really answer the question. She looks at her brittle bones and tatty linoleum. Why would anyone want what she has? It's easy to confuse a house's worth with our own. And Lanchester has a ball dissecting our foibles. Just like those 19th-century homeowners, everyone on the street is staking their future on the present. The road's name, Pepys, is no coincidence either. Samuel Pepys was a 17th-century diarist.

He gave readers a bird's-eye view of the plague, fire and destructive English politics. In "Capital," Lanchester does the same, gently showing us our modern-day plagues: greed, politics and sheer corruption. Those hit close to home as he plays with the concepts of value and commodity. In one case, we even find a suitcase full of half a million dollars in worthless bills hidden behind a wall. But luckily for us, as Lanchester shows us, there's more than one kind of capital. And of that other kind, there's plenty to go around.

CORNISH: Lizzie Skurnick is a critic, poet, essayist, author and teacher. She writes the blog "The Old Hag." She recommended the book "Capital" by John Lanchester. For more book reviews, go to nprbooks.org. There, you'll also find summer reading recommendations from our critics and correspondents.

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