"People Like Us" is a very 80's novel about the rich who are supposed to be different from you and me. It is a story about the hautest of the haute New York society in the latter half of the 1980's, a time when the rich rushed off in limousines to the most exclusive parties every night, oblivious to and unconcerned about the homeless who camped out in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks outside their luxury condos. It brings us the creme de la creme of the old line WASPs in the Social Register who take themselves terribly seriously, much more so than anyone else does. They are a dying breed and it's probably just as well.
At the very top of the pile, breathing the rarified air of the upper strata of New York society, sits the Altemus/VanDegan family, led by Lil Altemus and her brother Laurance VanDegan, quintessential snobs, sure of their self-worth, loathing the "new money" that is invading their sacrosanct circle of friends and acquaintances. Lil's son, Hubie, is a disappointment to his family; he's gay, kicked out of Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam ("the language of maids" huffs his uncle Laurance), and hopelessly in love with his Puerto Rican hustler boyfriend Juanito; and her daughter Justine marries a TV anchorman, Bernard Slatkin, whose name will most definitely not be found in the Social Register. Charging headlong into this formerly impenetrable social ring is Elias Renthal, who has made billions of dollars on Wall Street through hostile takeovers and financial wizardry, and his beautiful, ambitious wife Ruby.
Observing from the sidelines and taking notes is Gus Bailey, the ever-present "spare man", available to squire single ladies to dinners, balls, etc. Gus had his own agenda, however, and when he finally swings from observation into action, he makes some very large waves. His mission accomplished, Gus looks around him at the shallowness and narrow-mindedness of the society he moved so effortlessly into, and comes to the conclusion that the reader probably arrived at before the end of the second chapter; namely, that "this ain't it".
Dominic Dunne knows the kind of people he writes about and he is an acute and astute observer. We see Lil Altemus in all her vanity, her shallowness, her conceit and we realize, finally, how pathetic she is; Justine wins our respect by her determination not to be a "lady who lunches" like her mother and her mother's friends; and poor Hubie is a genuinely tragic figure, fitting neither into the world he was born into or his lover's world he tries to fit into. The most interesting figure in this book, however, is Ruby Renthal; pushy to an extreme but extremely likeable nonetheless, and possessing an integrity which places her far above the socialites who look down on her as a new-money, no-class upstart.
"People Like Us" by no means falls into the category of serious literature and it doesn't try to; but it's an enjoyable read and shines a harsh light into a closed society which doesn't look all that appetizing once its seamier side is exposed. Maybe the rich aren't all that different after all.