Gaslighter, Big Timer

Working in finance has made me slightly obsessed with the global financial crisis that started in 2008. How the hell did things get so messed up, and how did this world become so broken? Reading financial documents every year for more than four years allowed me to better understand the ins and outs of the industry and the domino effect that culminated in the crisis.

Even more so, I’m fascinated by the people who seriously lacked morals while possessing immense greed. My curiosity with the matter has led me to read many books that take place during this time, including most recently The Widow of Wall Street. According to the book’s backstory, the author, Randy Susan Meyers, has the same questions as I do.

In this current climate, though, I also needed some fun, intoxicating chick lit (perhaps of the Emily Giffin variety). My preceding read filled me with hopelessness, and I needed a change that surely The Widow of Wall Street would give me. Welp, let’s just say the novel depressed me far more than I had imagined. That’s not a bad thing by any means, and Meyers certainly piqued my interest, especially toward the end. Her writing, though, possessed incongruent pacing and unfulfilling descriptions, which didn’t do justice to the narrative. This left me not quite fulfilled and still, well, kind of sad.

The Widow of Wall Street

Imagine being married to, unbeknownst to you, a criminal, someone who has not just screwed over you and your family but also thousands of people over the course of decades. It’s hard to imagine, right? How would you not know what your partner was doing all those years?

Enter Phoebe Pierce. We meet this middle-age woman just as she’s settling into a pathetic hotel before visiting her husband, Jake, who is serving a life sentence in prison. The dire circumstances seem even worse and even more pathetic when you consider the luxurious and extravagant life the two have lived since their 20s. How could such a power couple fall this far?

Phoebe meets Jake at their Brooklyn high school in the early 60s. Three years older, Jake possesses passion, charm, and popularity, and he immediately swoons Phoebe. She too has passion and dreams, but unlike her boyfriend, she wants to make a difference in the world and somehow leave her sheltered existence behind her. In contrast, Jake seemingly wants money and power and to grow out of his humble beginnings.

As the two grow older and stay together (all because of one terrible and tragic lie on Phoebe’s part), Jake starts building a financial dynasty through his brokerage firm and completely and 100% separate investment arm, known as “the Club.” If it sounds suspicious, it is. These are the days before intense SEC oversight, digital record-keeping, and documented processes. His success continues to dumbfound and attract future investors, but, as we see through Jake’s point of view, his secrets and keeping the lies in tact become more than just a headache. They’re his entire existence.

The Pierce family glides into luxury, fancy cars, sweeping homes, and expensive china, though Phoebe continuously feels like being the wife of a finance god isn’t enough if not quite embarrassing. She seeks validation through her own success. Just when that starts to happen, Jake’s lies catch up with him — at the onslaught of the financial crisis — and Phoebe finds herself dealing with lies, regrets, questionable loyalty, and difficult decisions.

“Fortunate are those who can dry the tears of others. Blessed are those who can hold their family and friends close.” — The Widow of Wall Street

The novel is pretty equally split between Phoebe’s perspective and Jake’s, which gives insight into how he could lie, cheat, and steal for so long without anyone knowing, including his own wife. It also is split into different sections chronologically depending on where they are in life:

  • The early years;
  • Building an empire;
  • Enjoying an empire;
  • The fall of the empire; and
  • Finding new life.

This structure provides a good foundation that leads to the climax, but it has mismatched pacing. Meyers excessively focuses on everything before the fall. Nearly every section captures the emotions and aura of the time, leading right into the next section. Then, all of a sudden, we go from the early 90s to the fall of 2008.

This produces an imbalance and almost seems like Meyers just wants to reach the finish line. I don’t need every single year and decade to be fully detailed to get the full picture of what happened, but I was definitely jolted when we reached the new millennium. Where did all the time go, and what happened in between?

“Rich people thought themselves special, but in truth, they simply possessed extra layers of insulation against the winds of misfortune.” — The Widow of Wall Street

It’s even more jarring because I feel like I don’t truly understand the characters and their dynamics with each other. Jake, even though we read his perspective, is a bit of an enigma with contradictory characteristics. I still don’t truly understand who Meyers tried to create. I can say the same for others in the novel too. For example, is Phoebe’s mom a doting and conservative housewife or a liberal female full of sass? Furthermore, the relationship between Jake and Phoebe bewilders me. I understand their marriage stems from Phoebe’s unpublicized guilt, but I can’t even grasp what it is Phoebe likes about him — even though they have incredibly hot sex their whole lives, a nugget that Meyers doesn’t want you to forget after repeating it too many times. These inconsistent descriptions and behaviors don’t equate to complex characters and relationships; they just make for cloudy exposition.

OK so a lot of passionate complaints on my side, so why three flames, you may ask?

I can’t lie: Meyers kept me interested. Although the start didn’t excite all that much, the more I read, the less I wanted to put it down.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the feelings it evokes from me. I feel Phoebe’s pain at the end of this novel and have empathy for the difficult if seemingly confusing decisions she has to make. The last quarter of the novel — despite the above-mentioned change in pacing — is probably the strongest. (It’s the gap in timing that jolts, not the time period itself.) The characters and their decisions seem the most complex, yet the messaging of that complexity clarifies and makes sense. This is probably why I became increasingly engrossed and speed-read to the end.

Lastly, for all of us who wonder how could a wife married to this type of man be innocent or have experienced grief, Phoebe reminds us that looking behind the curtain reveals more than we may want to admit.

“Phoebe never plays the victim, and it is her willingness to take responsibility for Jake’s deplorable actions that makes her a heroine in the end,” writes Samantha Critchell of the Associated Press.

Yes, there are flaws. However, where the writing is weak, the intrigue is high, and we get a likable and empathetic character along the way. In the end, this novel breaks even.

“Swift adaptation saved you, not wallowing in the muck.” — The Widow of Wall Street

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