Having grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I took special pleasure in Caitlin Macy’s Spoiled set there. None of my close friends resemble her self-centered heroines, but I recognize the type. Macy’s observation are as sharp as broken glass and reflect an affluent world of the not quite privileged enough. Her women live in million dollar apartments overlooking the shaftway instead of Central Park. They married money.
Caitlin Macy reminds me of John Cheever, Curtis Sittenfeld and Tom Wolfe. These authors regard their privileged but miserable characters with unflinching honesty. There is a keen eye for subtle class differences bordering on satire. The reader gets to know the selfish protagonist, but the protagonist is incapable of full self-realization. Moral ambiguity chimes on champagne glasses.
Here’s an excerpt from “Christie,” the opening story in Spoiled:
I realized that what separated us, and perhaps had always separated us, was the understanding that I had only just reached and that she – she would never have to: In life you can only get so far.
A shorter version of “Christie,” was published in The New Yorker four years ago and was my introduction to this talented author. One woman mocks another without realizing how superficial she is herself. Her condescension comes back to haunt her. “The Red Coat” takes this one step further: a housewife tries to cut down her self-confident housecleaner by stealing her coat. The insecure employer actually believes she is granting a favor.
The best stories twist upon themselves with double meaning. The title piece “Spoiled” refers to a young horse, but it is really the teenaged owner who is spoiled and at fault for ruining her mount. The pushy mothers in Macy’s stories come from middle class backgrounds and want their daughters to have everything that they believed they were denied themselves.
In “Annabel’s Mother” we are given the key to the private garden, but amid the lush blooms are socialite thorns. The mothers gossip about the other residents and their nannies. Social standing is precarious. It’s not enough to rent a summer house on Nantucket Island; you must own one. Members of the Lower Upper Class are defined as much by what they don’t have as by what they do have.
The stories are not equally successful. The ones about New Yorkers abroad resort to stereotypes. Although they had their moments, “Bait and Switch”in Italy and “Taroudant”in Morocco were poorly crafted compared to the stories set in America. The author is much better when writing about what she knows.
Caitlin Macy lives on the Upper East Side (in a prewar off 5th Ave.) and is from the family that originally started Macy’s Department Store, although she didn’t inherit that money. She went to boarding school and to Yale on scholarship. This I learned in the Style Section of The New York Times where her book was first reviewed on its March 1st release.
I’d recommend getting Spoiled for Mother’s Day. You’ll read it and realize you’re not such a bad mom after all. I gave the collection to my mother with a warning: these are compelling stories about creepy women. I still thoroughly enjoyed most of them. As a writer of women’s fiction, I learned from them too. Spoiled cleverly straddles the literary/commercial fiction divide, and it does so with class.
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