Living in suburban Southern California, we had a first row seat to the devastation the sub-prime mortgage crisis brought to homeowners who purchased beyond their means, based on the hope that by the time their “adjustable” mortgage adjusted, home prices and incomes would have increased accordingly. Easy approval, low entry rates, and a steady economy lulled them into buying just at – or beyond – their means. When the economy crashed, so did their ability to stay in their homes. Families all over the country watched their dreams disappear as they faced bills they couldn’t pay. Having watched this disaster from a safe remove, I was interested to see it personified through a piece of literature.
In this dark and depressing novel, Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young married couple,move from Boston to a fictional Southern California town, Serenos. Serenos is a town like many others in this state: too far inland to enjoy the beach, comprised of new developments built cheaply and to sell quickly in areas that are hot, dusty, and located on the eastern edge of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Having secured mid-level jobs (which disappeared for Nick before they crossed the state line), he and Phoebe hoped to invest their savings in improving the house and selling it for a large profit. But along with their hopes, their furniture, and their young son, the Maguires dragged a lot of baggage with them.
As we learn quickly, both have secrets: Nick hasn’t told Phoebe that he not only doesn’t have the job he planned on, but he doesn’t even want another like it. Nick has other plans.
Phoebe has her own secrets, attachments from her past that seriously impact the future of the entire family.
It’s unfortunate for readers that their problems are unremittingly visited upon us.
This book is not for the squeamish nor the fainthearted. I found both protagonists – not to mention the assortment of minor characters – not only unsympathetic but, at times, abhorrent. The details of the decline in both their lives and that of the larger society around them was oppressive.
The challenges that foreclosed-on homeowners faced as homes in the area were left abandoned and open to squatters and thieves were based on very real events – tragedies for people in this situation – and yet the issue was treated in a way that made the reader feel complicit in a distasteful act of voyeurism.
Having said all this, however, I have to confess that I was pulled along by the tension of the story. The Kirkus Review, in a starred review of the the novel, says, “McGinniss . . . injects it with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that all adds up to a taut page turner.” I can’t disagree with that.