A Boozy Socialite’s Morality Tale

Posted June 1, 2009 at 4:32pm

Adultery, booze, gossip, name-dropping — it’s all just part of the game in a new book about the young, fabulous and wealthy in Washington, D.C. But perhaps the juicy novel should also be required reading for interns and new Hill staffers.

“This Is How It Starts— is a fictional tale of a recent college graduate’s introduction to D.C.’s political jungle. The first literary effort from Grant Ginder, a speechwriter at the Center for American Progress, the story is a fun read that, according to the author, is embedded with a morality tale.

“You start noticing the way people’s politics in their friendships and relationships change— after they spend some time in D.C., Ginder said. He said he was writing with young professionals in mind, who might find that they are more susceptible to power, sex and money than they thought.

The story is narrated by Taylor Mark, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus who moves to the District to escape a life of driving his divorcée mother to and from her therapy appointments.

Taylor seems fast-tracked for the good life, thanks to a staffer job he lands through his best friend’s father, who happens to be a wealthy and influential Republican lobbyist. Rather than hitting dive bars on Pennsylvania Avenue, however, Taylor finds himself running with the LateNightShots social networking crowd at Smith Point and Cafe Milano.

At first glance, the novel seems like a beach read, filled with boozy parties and only slightly exaggerated socialite types. But the deeper Taylor gets into the scene, the more gravity the story gains.

Some of the players seem like caricatures of stereotypical Washingtonians: Chase, the playboy best friend who considers properly tied neckties and owning the right loafers among the most important things in life; Caitlin, the perky party girl who leaves behind the District for a Treasury job in Baghdad; Annalee, the WASPy cousin who marries the bad boy best friend and simultaneously rails at and embraces the life she’s entered.

One character with more redeeming qualities is Vanessa, a Democratic staffer who befriends Taylor when he starts his job. Throughout the story, you find yourself hoping she will keep him grounded as he navigates D.C.’s high society.

Alluring as the world of wealth and privilege is, however, it does not come without consequences for Taylor.

“It’s simply unrealistic to think someone can go through this unfazed,— Ginder said.

The author admits that his hero is “not a perfect protagonist.— But that’s part of why the novel works. Even though Taylor is likable, he’s believable as a newly minted staffer who doesn’t entirely agree with everything he sees in Washington but doesn’t quite reject it, either.

Ginder was writing with a young professional audience in mind, though he wasn’t just aiming toward those in Washington.

“What I was most interested in conveying is when we’re put in a position to make moral decisions — we’re not [talking about] deciding to waterboard someone, but small, trivial land battles — it’s those things that snowball into the things that we become,— Ginder said.

Anyone who has spent time in Washington will appreciate the references to various spots around town, and the tongue-in-cheek references to interns.

Though Ginder said the work is entirely fiction, he acknowledged that some elements come from his own experiences. In one scene, for example, Taylor overhears two interns talking on the Metro, both trumping up their duties to impress the other.

Ginder recalled a similar experience from his own intern days, when he was working for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.). He was listening to two people chatting about work and assumed from the conversation that they were high-level staff. When he turned around, however, he spotted badges that identified them as interns.

“I was like, Really, guys? Come on, let’s call it what it is here,’— Ginder recalled with a laugh.

Some of the situations Taylor finds himself in might be a little far-fetched for most interns or staffers, and there is the occasional clichéd turn of phrase or situation. Overall, though, “This Is How It Starts— is well-paced and engaging — perfect for a summer read, with a little bit of morality built in.