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BookBrowse Reviews Ways and Means by Daniel Lefferts

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Ways and Means

A Novel

by Daniel Lefferts

Ways and Means by Daniel Lefferts X
Ways and Means by Daniel Lefferts
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  • Published:
    Feb 2024, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jillian Bell
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A mysterious job puts the life of a striving student in jeopardy, forcing him to confront his own greed.

At the beginning of Ways and Means, we learn that ambitious NYU student Alistair McCabe is on the run for his life. What we don't know is why. The only facts revealed at this point are that Alistair is in the final year of his finance degree, that he's sleeping with Elijah and Mark, a couple in their early thirties who are on the verge of breaking up, and that the job they connected him with has gone horribly awry. This captivating novel explores the risks Alistair took to reach this point, and how far he'll go to save himself.

Greed and desire are major themes. Alistair was raised by a single mother in Binghamton, New York, and attended a private Catholic school thanks to a fund set up by his father's employer in the wake of his tragic death. Alistair realizes, in retrospect, that his classmates were not super elites, but rather the children of doctors, lawyers and mid-level executives. But at the time, these kids with their Lacoste polos and their parents' BMWs might as well have been from another world…and it was a world he was desperate to join. He made it his mission to become wealthy and buy himself and his mother the desirable lifestyle they never had.

So when an eccentric billionaire's assistant acquainted with Elijah and Mark reluctantly agrees to hire Alistair to help with a special project, he doesn't stop to question why everyone's emails are under fake names, or why the corporate structure involves so many shell companies. All he sees are the flexible hours and $10,000 a month paycheck. He eagerly blows through the money, buying luxuries for himself and clothing and furniture for his mother. But while Alistair is certainly materialistic, he's not one-dimensional. Much of his greed is rooted in his deep love for his mother, and his self-imposed pressure to be the "man of the house."

Alistair's mother also has a complicated relationship with money, which feeds and bumps up against her son's. A descendant of wealthy WASPs whose fortune has long since vanished, she looks with scorn on her own mother's efforts to be part of the country club set, and she prides herself on the fact that she doesn't desire wealth and looks down on material things, quietly revealing a belief in her intellectual superiority. An administrative assistant with no interest in climbing the corporate ladder, she has to be persuaded to accept Alistair's gifts, only to leave them untouched. She sees the pressure Alistair puts on himself to gain wealth, and tries in vain to convince her son to study the liberal arts, as she did. Alistair and his mother are incredibly close, yet their goals and values are often completely at odds.

Money is not a concern for Mark and Elijah. At least, it hasn't been until recently. Mark is nominally a writer and Elijah dabbles in graphic design, but both have been living off Mark's million-dollar trust fund for almost a decade. When we meet them, they are on the verge of running out of money, and of running out of patience with one another.

The push and pull between Mark, Elijah and Alistair is part of what makes this book so fascinating. Free spirit Elijah, with a penchant for pushing back against his and Mark's bourgeois lifestyle, is the one who initially suggests inviting a third person into their bed. But it is straight-laced Mark who falls the hardest for Alistair, feeling that in their desire for respectability they are on some level kindred spirits. Elijah can sense Mark's passion for their new lover, which only drives the longtime partners further apart. Alistair's presence uncovers and deepens pre-existing tensions between Mark and Elijah.

When Alistair is forced to flee the city and Mark and Elijah break up, we follow each on a journey of self-discovery. Mark takes a job with his millionaire father's trailer park empire, wrestling for the first time with the ways his family has profited from their impoverished tenants. Alistair must devise a plan to escape his pursuers, confronting his values along the way. And Elijah, who has always felt weirder, darker and more creative than the respectable front he put forward during his relationship with Mark, escapes into hedonism as he helps a friend with a conceptual art project, ultimately coming face-to-face with his emotional emptiness.

Ways and Means is not a satire, but it is quietly witty, especially in the dialogue. With its cast of morally gray but profoundly likable characters, this book skewers the worlds of finance and high-profile contemporary art while addressing themes of generational trauma and redemption. Readers may see themselves in striving Alistair, privileged Mark or pleasure-seeking Elijah, and even those who don't relate to the characters will find themselves rooting for them. Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this book combines the high stakes of a thriller with the deep character studies and vivid descriptions of literary fiction.

Reviewed by Jillian Bell

This review first ran in the February 7, 2024 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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