Even though they are often economically privileged, most of the female characters in the novel are vulnerable and disempowered. Some of the sources of their disempowerment include their lack of learned skills, inability to control their finances, and the way that male characters make decisions without consulting them. Iris and Laura receive very little education because they are expected to primarily be wives and mothers who will take on social functions within their elite world. Neither of them is equipped to be able to work or earn a living, and as a result, they rely entirely on men for their financial security. Even once she knows she is in love with Alex, Iris is hesitant to leave Richard because she doesn’t know how she would make a living without him. Laura is willing to work and be independent, but social expectations around what is appropriate for a woman of her class make it impossible for her to do so. Major life decisions, such as whom to marry and whether or not to have an abortion, are made without women’s consent. Instead, men make these decisions based on what is convenient for them and what will help them to achieve their goals.
Throughout the novel, characters with less money are presented as more virtuous while characters who are invested in maintaining wealth take immoral action in order to acquire money. Norval Chase essentially sells his daughter to Richard to try and save his fortune, while Richard is willing to resort to any means necessary to keep his business successful. Because Richard is accustomed to buying whatever he wants, he doesn’t understand the notion that someone might defy him. When Laura resists his advances, he coerces and blackmails her in a similar fashion to how he would trick someone into a business deal. Although Iris is a character who sometimes tries to do the right thing, the allure of a luxurious lifestyle leads her to compromise her ethical principles. She is hesitant to leave Richard, and she turns a deaf ear to Laura’s warnings because she likes being able to have nice things. Characters like Alex and Laura, on the other hand, are willing to sacrifice material comfort so that they can live with integrity. Both Alex and Laura have to live on the run and endure rough conditions, but they do so because they do not want to betray their values.
The novel highlights gaps between appearances and reality by presenting readers with multiple perspectives on the same event and sometimes leaving readers unsure of which version is correct. Excerpts from newspaper articles and society gossip columns present accounts of what events look like from the outside. However, from the beginning, it is clear that these accounts may not be accurate. As soon as Iris receives news of Laura’s death, she goes to work presenting the death as an accident even though she knows it is likely suicide. Similarly, when she receives news of Alex’s death, Iris pretends to be confused and indifferent when in reality she is heartbroken. Some of the novel’s biggest revelations highlight how things that at first appear to be one way are actually very different. Readers learn that Iris misunderstood and believed Laura was having an affair with Alex when she was actually being abused by Richard. Iris also pretends that Richard is Aimee’s father (instead of Alex) and that Laura is the author of the novel (instead of Iris). As Iris approaches the end of her life, her one goal is to finally reveal the truth about some of these realities. In doing so, she reveals just how easily appearances can be misinterpreted and misconstrued.