A few months ago, I saw a review of Janny Scott’s The Beneficiary in The Wall-Street Journal and wanted to read it. This summer – thanks to inter-library loan, I obtained a copy and read it. While The Beneficiary wasn’t terrible, I can’t give it more than 6 out of 10.
Janny Scott’s father, Robert Montgomery Scott (1929-2005) was part of the old “mainline” Protestant families near Philadelphia. Robert was one of a long line of wealthy family members who enjoyed privileges typical of the upper crust. He had two Ivy League degrees, served on many boards, and was so representative of the old WASP establishment that – behind his back – his children called him The Duke of Villanova.
But he was also a bitterly-unhappy alcoholic, and a serial philanderer who never seemed to find anything in his life fulfilling. After he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2005, Janny Scott began to wonder if she’d ever known him. Robert had long promised to leave her his diaries. In The Beneficiary, Janny Scott recounts her reaction to reading the diaries –
For me, The Beneficiary had huge potential as one of those “How-did-it-all go-wrong?” books. At times, it is compelling reading. But I felt let down for a number of reasons.
Lack of focus is the book’s biggest problem. Scott spends too much time on her extended family. 260 pages is too little space to do the subject justice and the diluted focus hurts The Beneficiary.
Similarly, Janny Scott doesn’t focus on the diaries enough. She remarks that her father’s total writings amounted to much less than she had thought that they would. But the book teases the reader with the idea that the diaries will be the center of the story, when – in fact – they are just a facet of it.
Some of the other topics just aren’t that interesting. For instance, there’s a huge amount of time spent on the family’s many houses, the houses’ furnishings, and the Scotts’ efforts to preserve these white elephants. The level of detail given to renovations and the various living arrangements at the many homes left me cold.
Finally, Janny Scott might have been more revealing of herself. She decries the pernicious influences of inherited wealth, but doesn’t reveal how she’s dealt with it in her life. Certainly, she has enjoyed some of its advantages (e.g., a Harvard education). She says little of how she raised her own children in light of the many burdens she perceives in her family’s history.
What It All Means
When putting the Scotts’ story in a larger context, Ms. Scott contends that her family’s history should give today’s plutocrats pause in planning their estates for their children. Inherited wealth, she believes, is as much a burden as a blessing. Wisely, she doesn’t belabor the point, given that one family’s history – while interesting – really can’t tell us that much about the typical family’s experience.
In summary, The Beneficiary is “just OK.” My expectations weren’t met. Maybe they were too high. The book is worth a look, but it’s not outstanding.