'Cheerful Money' delights with WASP angst

In today's dire economic times, a tale about the WASP culture of privilege seems like an unlikely pleasure.

But in "Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor," author Tad Friend is able to paint a picture of the now-faded cultural elite of America with the delight and disgust that only an insider can.

Part memoir and part analysis, Friend shares the funny and occasionally heartbreaking stories of his life, family and friends just as the money is running out and prestige is waning.

WASP, by definition, is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But by those terms, Friend points out, Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton are part of the class associated with some of America's most prominent family names.

Instead, Friend writes, WASPiness is an "overlay on human character, like the porcelain veneer that protects the biting surface of a damaged tooth. Worse, the adjective is pejorative."

He catalogs servants, summer homes and Shetland sweaters that define the culture. But more intriguing, he deftly captures the delightful torture of being raised in a culture of restraint.

As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Friend is talented at capturing other worlds — most notably the one of celebrity as he writes the magazine's "Letter From California" column.

But in this book (perhaps a benefit of having spent his portion of family money on years of therapy), Friend brings the added authority of first-person experience.

A self-proclaimed WASP, Friend says he can give a handsome wedding toast but shies away from manual labor, and he dwells heavily on his childhood and tense relationship with his mother.

Ultimately the book reflects on more than birthright, with his take on the influence of family, tradition and loss that shapes one's life.

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