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“Rich Boy” by Sharon Pomerantz is a debut novel that brings into focus issues of class and wealth through the life and times of protagonist Robert Vishniak.
Robert is a baby-boomer born to working-class Jewish parents and raised in Oxford Circle, a community in Northeast Philadelphia. His mother, Stacia, has counted and pinched every penny, and her main message to him growing up is “make money.” His father works long hours at the post office and due to his parents’ encouragement and examples, Robert has developed a formidable work ethic. Robert’s younger brother, Barry, seems to be under less stress and has fewer responsibilities. Maybe, Robert thinks, responsibility and stress are the penalty for being the older son. He feels that he shoulders the family’s hopes of success.
As a teenager Robert becomes determined to make his way up in society. His way out of his blue-collar upbringing is scholarships to an elite college in Boston, hard work and never looking back. Robert, charming and handsome, has young women flocking to him, and he instinctively knew he needed to work on his charisma. Soon Robert becomes upwardly mobile. His journey takes him from the 1950s in Philadelphia to the 80s high-society of New York. Early success in upper-class Manhattan as a real estate lawyer, and marriage to the daughter of the founding partner at his new law firm gives him entry into a once-unattainable world.
The author writes wonderful scenes about Robert’s experiences as he first sees inside the opulent life, about his relationship with members of the elite as he learns to be around them and, when necessary, take advantage of them. And yet, he knows he is still Robert Vishniak from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia. He gets what he thinks he wants and lets that shape his life. He is nonetheless ambivalent, as he becomes ashamed to bring his new friends home to meet his parents, though they and his brother are his family.
This epic story/novel is a compelling character study of a complex character as well as a portrait of four decades of American life. The author’s attention to detail and her careful historical research make this an interesting read. In general, this novel is about the minority experience and in this case, it is the Jewish-American journey. The author looks at the differences in religion and wealth that are still divisive in today’s America.
Sharon Pomerantz teaches creative writing in the English department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her shorter works have appeared in numerous publications.