The 2008 Great Recession had one of the most significant impacts on the way we understand the United States’ political, economic and social standing today. The predatory practices of the country’s largest banks and major financial institutions’ remain a lightning rod for how we talk about inequality; the resulting crash forever marked Wall Street as code for extreme upper-class disdain and its willingness to destroy individuals on lower rungs of the economic ladder.
The story we tell about the financial crisis—and the people responsible for the pain it has wreaked—has crystallized into near unchallengeable legend. But in her debut novel Our Little Racket, Angelica Baker complicates that narrative by examining the crisis from an obscured angle: through the eyes of the women who lived alongside the men responsible for it. In exploring five women’s perspectives, Baker unravels what it means to be in close proximity to those who are doing wrong.
“There was a period of time when it felt like everybody was holding their breath and waiting to see what happened,” Baker tells Paste. “Now we know nothing really changed. But for a while, it did seem like everyone was waiting to see how things were going to reorder themselves.”
The more Baker thought about the financial crisis and subsequent narrative that emerged around the men who controlled Wall Street, the more fascinated she became by the men’s families. “As I started reading about the people involved, I thought, ‘What would it be like to be in that family, waiting for everyone to tell you what it meant about you?’”
Our Little Racket follows the women who surround Bob D’Amico, the CEO at a fictional investment bank on the brink of investigation and possible collapse. As Bob spends more and more time at the office—and as rumors about the impending crisis begin to swirl around the gated community where he and his family make their home—his wife Isabel, his daughter Madison and his children’s nanny Lily struggle to understand what is happening as they defend their home from prying eyes. Isabel’s friend Mina is simultaneously competitive and supportive, while Madison’s friend Amanda has parents who are working to promote the narrative of guilt, creating an uncomfortable tension even in moments of close intimacy. The women must also grapple with where they stand in the growing public spectacle surrounding Bob and the company he ran—all under the scrutiny of a country eager to for some form of justice.
Bob himself is the heart of the story, yet he remains deeply obscured from the reader. His image in the novel is shaped by female characters; his wife and daughter know his passion, temper and secrecy, while the wives of his colleagues waffle between self-protection and compassion for the D’Amico family.
Male characters’ obscurity in the novel isn’t a coincidence. Although Baker didn’t set out to write from only women’s perspectives, she says it was something that emerged naturally. “Every time I added a character, it became clear what I was doing. I had no interest in Bob’s perspective; I was only interested in the women.”
Baker likens her novel’s structure to a Greek chorus, with women who observe and respond to the narrative’s action but do not directly influence it. She believes the public can identify with the strain of being able to only watch and wait, even if the characters’ position might create distance. After all, the Wall Street men’s families were hardly the true victims of the financial crisis. But Baker’s novel interrogates the way the families were impacted on an intimate level, even as they were coming to terms with their own culpability.
“There was an extent to which a lot of us were in that place in 2008,” she says. “What would you have learned if that was your father, or your friend, or your husband?”
If the novel’s premise sounds like it could be overly sympathetic to the crash’s architects and their beneficiaries, the depth of Baker’s characters helps to avoid such simplification. All the women in the book possess a complex understanding of their own place in a highly insular world. Isabel, born into wealth and highly ambivalent about it, is closed off even with her own children. Lily, who began working as the D’Amico family’s nanny after finishing her degree, is torn between a sense of duty to the children and disgust at her employer’s actions. Madison, a normal teen living in extraordinary circumstances, has to balance flirting with her crush one minute and carrying out the performative social graces she knows are expected of her the next.
Performance is central to these women’s lives. There are shades of Big Little Lies or The Real Housewives series in the way the women size up one another and respond to potential social threats. “Your children are growing up side by side, competing for lots of things. Your husbands all work in the same industry more or less,” Baker summarizes, having grown up in a wealthy Los Angeles community herself. “The oversimplified way to say it is that these women are acting how they were in high school, but that sells it short. There’s a more complicated give-and-take taking place in a community like that.”
Baker’s novel succeeds in avoiding simple answers or takeaways. Our Little Racket challenges the existing narrative about Wall Street, but it doesn’t claim those responsible were innocent. Instead, Baker introduces a human element into a story that has become largely and impossibly stark; where we have come to expect black and white, she asks us to consider some gray, leaving more questions than answers.
“I think looking at the people at the edges can make us think about the role we all played and how we would have behaved in that situation,” she says, “and how easy it is to have one foot in and one foot out, and tell yourself you aren’t involved in something that’s wrong.”
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.