Photo: Devon Jarvis/Studio D

2 of 18
& Sons
448 pages; Random House
In her iconic essay "Goodbye to All That," Joan Didion famously described New York City as "the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself." A transplant from California, Didion wrote as an outsider; but David Gilbert's layered & Sons (Random House) probes that nexus from the inside, limning the emotional decay of two prominent Manhattan families and the literary masterpiece that cages them.

Nearing 80, Andrew N. Dyer still grapples with the legacy of Ampersand, his first novel, which endures, like The Catcher in the Rye, as a staple of high school English classes. Reeling from the recent death of his oldest friend, Charlie Topping, Andrew summons his estranged adult sons from a former marriage to his Upper East Side apartment—as well as his 17-year-old son, the accidental by-product of a fling—for a rapprochement. Against a backdrop of prep schools and Ivy League universities, glamorous publishing parties and coked-up Hollywood stars, Gilbert's vivid, inventive tale plays with roving perspectives, clever puns, texts within texts—and an unreliable narrator, Philip Topping, Charlie's grown son, who lurks on the margins of the Dyers' story, his obsession with their feuds and alliances masking a deeply personal quest.

The novel considers themes ranging from the vanishing Wasp aristocracy to the frailty of life, but Gilbert is at his best plumbing the sour dysfunction at the heart of male relationships. As Philip notes, "Fathers seem to start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons." Parents indifferent to their children, brothers cursing and cherishing each other, friendships marred by buried passions—& Sons skewers a milieu of privileged white men while slyly celebrating it. 
— Hamilton Cain