Christina McDowell was on her way out of D.C. when she decided to write what could be the most delicious Washington novel in recent memory.
“I was in town for the Women's March, and on the plane back to Los Angeles, I got an email from my editor, who said, ‘What’s going on with the cave dwellers,” McDowell says, using a term that refers to longtime residents of the nation’s capital, the sort of people who stay in power no matter who’s living in the White House. “I had asked her if anyone had ever written a book about the sons and daughters of the most powerful figures here in this epicenter of institutional power, and she said, ‘You know, I think you're onto something.’”
And she was. McDowell’s novel The Cave Dwellers, out now, is a keenly observed, compelling story that reveals the inner workings of one of America’s most secretive tribes. Offering a glimpse into a world of money, power, and tradition that has for years had an outsized impact on the way the country operates, the novel uses a scalpel where others might deploy a hatchet.
The Cave Dwellers follows a multi-generational group of Washingtonians navigating the complicated waters of social and political survival in the wake of a gruesome murder of a local family inside their mansion, but it’s more than a whodunnit. Instead, it tackles ideas about family, friendship, belonging, and the fickle nature of influence—all playing out, of course, during tense meals at stuffy country clubs, at drug-fueled parties at the Russian ambassador’s mansion, and along the manicured avenues of Georgetown.
The Cave Dwellers would be a page turner no matter when it was released, but in today’s climate—with Washington more closely watched than ever, the prestige of elected office evolving, and even local grande dame Sally Quinn declaring the city’s social scene more or less extinct—it practically qualifies as required reading. That owes as much to McDowell’s sharp and insightful work as it does to her own status as someone who’s been on both sides of the doors to Washington’s most important rooms.
McDowell was born in Georgetown and later lived in the affluent suburb of McLean, Virginia. She had the kind of charmed childhood that the Washington Post once described as “spent on a sprawling Georgian estate around the corner from the Kennedys’ Hickory Hill, and summers in the house in Nantucket, Mass.”
She grew up around what she calls “quiet power,” explaining, “a childhood friend of mine's grandfather worked on the atomic bomb, and that sort of thing that is very specific to Washington.” But it wasn’t entirely a fairy tale. McDowell’s father, as she wrote in her 2015 memoir After Perfect, ended up in prison after being indicted for stock fraud; the real-life Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort testified against him. After that, her family—no longer living the high life—moved to Los Angeles where she picked up acting jobs and did a stint on reality TV.
“It’s so rare to read stories of people who’ve had it all and then lost it,” says Alison Callahan, McDowell’s book editor. “Christina rose to the occasion in such an extraordinary way. I publish 98% fiction but when I had her memoir in, I found it so interesting—she scraped together a life as a writer. Everything blew up in her face, but she handled it with such dignity and grace, and she still has a wink in her eye. But an elephant never forgets, and that’s why she’s the perfect person to do this. She’s not coming at it with a major agenda or with a knife in her hand, she’s approaching it with equanimity and telling it like it is.”
Still, for McDowell, making a return wasn’t always easy. “I came [back to Washington] as kind of an insider turned outsider, given my personal story,” says McDowell. “My parents endured—or maybe didn't endure—a scandal here; my father was indicted for fraud, he went to prison, and so I had been away for a really long time.”
Upon arriving back in town, McDowell began her research. Inspired by the skewering Tom Wolfe gave Manhattan’s one percent in Bonfire of the Vanities, she showed up to galas and the Chevy Chase Country Club, and eventually, a friend of a friend got her into the Alibi Club, one of old Washington’s most exclusive venues. The club appears in one of the novel’s delicious chapter breaks, which explain to outsiders the secret codes of some of D.C.’s power hubs. “Because that club is so exclusive and secretive,” she says, “it took me two years to find a source.”
She also began looking at the world of the cave dwellers not as she remembered it from childhood but instead how she saw it as an adult in its complicated, contemporary terms. “The cave dwellers who have resided in Washington generation after generation are really kind of losing their grasp, their existence seems to me to be very archaic,” she says now. “They belong to things like the Daughters of the American Revolution, where women still wear white gloves, and they retreat to their country homes in Middleburg where there's fox hunting. I like to say, that it’s sort of the Game of Thrones for the housewives of Washington.”
Paul Hammond, a Washington native and McDowell friend, thinks she hit the nail directly on its head. “I was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Georgetown, and when I was growing up, it was different in a way,” he says. “It was a sleepier town, and each part of Georgetown was different; we were wary of the people on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue because we were from the west side. We know a lot of cave dwellers, and Christina got that feel of that world right.”
Not that McDowell wrote the book to put any remaining cave dwellers at ease. “I didn't become a writer to make people feel comfortable,” she says. “I became a writer because I always felt there was some rebellion inside of me from the rigidity of Washington tradition and, in this insular world of the natives, a resistance to change. I think now we are ready for that change.”
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