Does love conquer all? Does it now? Did it ever? These are questions Cecilia Rabess asks in her nimble, discerning debut, “Everything’s Fine.” The novel’s protagonist, Jess, is a young, Black recent college graduate in her first year as an analyst at Goldman Sachs when the book sets out. “The entire building smells like money,” Rabess writes, but Jess is not a fish out of water — her entire young adult life has been defined by the affluence of those around her.
Her awakening to this reality, as it is recounted in the book’s early pages, was rude yet motivating. Jess was raised by a single father in Nebraska and lived a relatively normal middle-class life. She couldn’t afford to take the first job she was offered, at a feminist magazine. Her math degree pointed her in two directions: a life of debt in academia, or fat paychecks in finance. She chose finance.
At Goldman Sachs, the politically liberal Jess becomes reacquainted with her former classmate Josh, a white conservative analyst (though he maintains he’s a “moderate”) whom she hates — until she doesn’t. Their friendship, prickly at first, grows warmer over the first half of the novel. By the time the two finally got together, I found myself jubilant, if cautiously so. Rabess has a gift for chemistry, and the chemistry between Jess and Josh is almost tangible; their eventual union is, well, climactic.
In most other love stories, this is when the fissures would appear. But Josh and Jess’s relationship has shown deep craters since the beginning. Josh is a Republican of the Wall Street variety: fiscally conservative and, in theory, socially liberal, yet his insistence on seeing the world through abstractions, and his firm belief in his own reasonableness, means he’s unable (or unwilling) to see anything from anyone else’s perspective, including Jess’s. Jess comes up against this fundamental incompatibility in their worldviews again and again but sweeps everything under the rug to be dealt with later, because Josh’s unshakable confidence translates into effortless charisma. He’s funny, patient, generous, smart, loving. He cherishes Jess, unquestionably. What’s easier to question is whether he truly sees and understands Jess.
As Jess and Josh’s relationship deepens and cracks, so does her career. She gains and loses jobs, always trying to balance her goal of acquiring wealth and stability with her desire to honor the truth and her ethics. She keeps her beloved father apprised of none of this, so that he can believe her life is composed of success and smooth sailing, not hardships and definitely not a white boyfriend.
The novel draws to a close in the lead-up to the 2016 election, when the challenges in Jess and Josh’s relationship become impossible to ignore. Words, symbols, events that some — like Jess — are able to turn away from in the Obama era become impossible to brush away as Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton face off. Finally, after a vicious argument about a Make America Great Again hat, Josh tells Jess, “We’re exactly the same. … You don’t have a problem with the system, just your place in it.”
The ending of “Everything’s Fine” is one of the best I’ve read in years. It asks whether our choices stop and end with us. Is it ethical to date someone who goes against everything you believe in? Is it right to work in an industry that profits off a broken system? What do we owe, and to whom? For Josh, the answer is clear: “Jess, you don’t owe anyone,” he says to her as she grapples with the distressing thought that her principled father would be grievously disappointed in her. “You don’t have any unique obligation to help.”
Does she? Rabess offers no easy answers.
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