I was in my early 20s when I decided I wanted to write a novel. After a bookish childhood, I had followed an unremarkable middle-class trajectory: an English degree at a top university followed by an entry-level job in publishing. Reading five manuscripts a week left no time to write anything of my own. I wanted a job that allowed me free time, so I registered with a tutoring agency. A few weeks later, I found myself in a speedboat cutting across the Indian Ocean towards a superyacht the size of a ferry.
As I followed my new employers on to the deck, uniformed staff proffered Champagne and scented towels: I knew this new life would satisfy my writerly voyeurism. Over the next decade I’d see giant turtles off the coast of Madagascar, and underwater hotel rooms in Dubai where sharks swam past the windows. My patrons would be billionaires: some had made their money from sweatshops, from authoritarian regimes, and from tech companies with profits hidden safely offshore. My classrooms would be on yacht decks surrounded by dolphins, in Monaco penthouses with infinity pools, and in Mayfair townhouses with halls full of Mapplethorpes.
Whenever I thought I’d seen it all, the job would take me to new extremes. I remember a “doctor” fastening 20 electrodes to the skull of my pupil Cara, explaining that they’d help her—16, Prada-clad and passive—revise for her biology GCSE exam; Cara’s mother telling me that she’d flown him in from Zurich, and that the electrodes would stimulate Cara’s “problem-solving brainwaves” as she studied; Cara saying, “I think it’s working—I never really got photosynthesis before”; her mother, transported with excitement, exclaiming, “You see, darling, you see!” For a while, the wild abundance of my employers sat quite lightly with me, as I taught a conveyor belt of overprotected and overworked children.
Vittorio, 12, holidayed amid modernist glamour in Tuscany with three generations of his industrialist family. When he did his school entry exams, his parents hired a reflexologist to massage his pressure points as he fell asleep.
Maya’s parents had recently purchased a fourth home, a villa on the Côte d’Azur. They didn’t like the trees, so they ripped them out and had five ancient dogwoods delivered from Spain. These arrived by steamboat, weeping white blossom into the small port, while Maya did math for six hours a day, right through her Easter holidays. (Her mother fed her so many vitamin supplements at breakfast, it was only mid-afternoon that her nausea would subside.)
Lin Lin drank only ionized water at pH 9.0. Serving her tap water was a sackable offence. Her mother bought her a shih-tzu puppy called Merry and hired a trainer to come over with six show dogs and demonstrate to Merry what he too might one day achieve.
“Look, Merry, look!” she cried, as the trainer’s dogs leapt and twisted through hoops and tunnels and jumps.
As time passed, the novelty wore off. I traveled the world, but it felt like the same place. Be it a yacht off St. Barts or a chalet in Gstaad, it was all eerily the same: beige suede sofas, chrome objets, onyx chandeliers, basement gyms, single scallops on oversized square plates, hours spent in Saint Laurent loungewear watching the Kardashians on 85-inch flatscreens, the air always 68 degrees no matter how near the equator.
I’d told myself that compared with other staff—those who had to wear electronic bracelets that buzzed when they were summoned—I had it pretty good. But that started to change. I remember one mother telling me, “Please, Sarah, when you aren’t teaching, either stay in your bedroom or leave the property. This is a family holiday.” I found myself having to wear dirty clothes after being told by one of the richest families in Europe that running the washing machine was “too expensive.” On one particularly bad job, the housekeeper and I would sneak to the end of the driveway at night to share cigarettes. We had no common language, but one night she tapped some words into Google Translate: bad family.
When I returned to London in 2019, back in flatshares in a brutal rental market, the proximity to all that wealth began to take a greater psychological toll. My first novel didn’t work out. It got me an agent but not a book deal.
Vova, 13, was a turning point. “What have I done to deserve this?” is how he greeted me, pulling his Gucci hoodie over his face. He’d been deposited in a vast white elephant of a house in Belgravia for the summer, with a guardian and a tutor, because his parents thought his grades needed improvement. They remained in Russia, and between lessons Vova WhatsApped friends back home and played Fortnite, machine-gun fire ricocheting around this empty palace, hastily furnished with plexiglass tables and chairs. Both loathing and understanding his hostility, I began to think: Maybe I should be writing about this.