Emily Hourican’s The Privileged, is a well-written entertaining story focusing on the friendship between three south side Dublin girls on the brink of adulthood. The title gives it away, but this is a tale of upper middle class teenagers with upper middle class problems, which means that sometimes it’s hard to be as sympathetic to their plights as the plot would wish us to be.
Stella and Laura are life-long friends who are outsiders at their exclusive school (I’m unsure as to why) until they form an unlikely friendship with the beautiful and popular Amanda O’Hagen who draws them into her world of wealth and privilege. The three become inseparable, until Amanda’s work in the modelling industry leads to constant partying and drug taking. The arrival of a Huw, a rich English man with his own penchant for self-destruction, eventually drives a wedge between Amanda and everyone around her.
The book opens with the women now in their thirties as Laura, a journalist and Stella, a lawyer, meet in London to try and save Amanda from a very public and dangerous downfall.
The book skilfully moves from present to past, exploring the lives and career paths the three girls have followed and exploring how friendships, no matter how strong, can disintegrate at an alarming rate. Hourican is also effective at exploring Amanda’s toxic relationship with her mother and how it ties in with her self-destructive descent into drug addiction. The heady atmosphere of that time between school and university when the world is there for the taking is also well captured and the bonds of teenage friendship and the belief that it will last forever will be recognisable to many.
Ultimately though, these are characters who are often hard to care about. The very privilege that allows the story to flourish, also means that the stakes never feel high enough. These are the children of artists, solicitors and stockbrokers and their disappointment at where their lives have ended up is dramatically unconvincing. To my mind, Laura is the most interesting of the three girls, but her story is somewhat eclipsed by Amanda’s Amy Winehouse-style fall from social grace and Stella’s tangled love life. As Hourican is herself a journalist, Laura’s work life in the newsroom, trying to balance ethics with the problem of declining newspaper sales, is vivid and intriguing in comparison to Stella’s sterile work in a New York law firm.
However, this book is about Amanda and while it is to Hourican’s credit that Amanda’s descent into a life of addiction and degradation is convincing, I found Amanda herself to be a bit of a cipher. Amanda is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, charming, charismatic and adored by all and yet little of a personality comes through.
They had read into her something that spoke more clearly of their own dreams and hopes than of anything that was actually there. Photographers saw a muse, her mother had seen glory, Stella and Laura escape, their friends from college excitement.
That is maybe the intention, the idea that we can never really know someone, but as the lead character of a book, it leaves a bit of a vacuum. As a reader, I was interested in Amanda, but not invested in her and the ‘betrayal’ between the three, which changes the course of their friendship, is equally underwhelming.
Despite these issues, Hourican has crafted a very readable and timely story. She writes well and has a skill in capturing those moments in youth that can feel momentous and life-changing, but overall the book didn’t wholly convince.
I received The Privileged from the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest review