For most of his life, Albert Schmidt had it all. Rising to partnership at the ancient and venerable New York law firm of Wood & King during the golden age of the American Century, Schmidt did all he was expected to do: He married a promising editor, entertained in his Fifth Avenue apartment, sent his only daughter to private schools and Harvard, and "weekended" and "summered" at an old family home in Bridgehampton. It was a life devoted to taste, manners and, above all, to the quiet and systematic business of the WASP ascendancy--"exclusive" in every sense of the word.
But now, at 60, something has gone terribly, if quietly, wrong for Schmidt. Early retirement has left him without purpose. The sale of his Manhattan apartment and a permanent move to his summer house have left him isolated. The death of his wife has shaken his faith not only in happiness but even in his ability to cobble together some sort of bearable existence. And, as Louis Begley's fourth novel opens, comes Schmidt's coup de grace: His only daughter announces her impending marriage to one of Schmidt's former proteges, an attorney Schmidt increasingly cannot abide and stranger, still for Schmidt, a Jew. All of which brings to the fore the unconscious assumptions and prejudices Schmidt has lived by even as his family falls by the wayside in the modern world.
And for Schmidt, that disarray is everywhere. The title of this novel can be taken in two ways because the story is really concerned with what has happened around Schmidt in the years since he last looked up from his desk. About Schmidt, the corridors of power and the "right" vacation towns have moved. About Schmidt, the manners and mores of the corporate classes have coarsened and changed, and the composed, well-rounded sophisticates in his firm have been replaced by drones devoted to billable hours.