Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spoiled by Caitlin Macy

Central Park boating pond in spring

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.

Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket Island

In “The Secret Vote” a New Yorker learns that her fetus has Down Syndrome. She spends her weekends with her pro-life cousin and a houseful of children. The protagonist believes her choice is obvious, like voting democrat in the upcoming election, but somehow the decision is much harder than she anticipated. Macy lays out the moral quandary without passing judgment: for this I love her.


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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@Barrie Summy

37 comments:

tina said...

No matter where you go in life I think, there are always status symbols. Such a shame humans can't be more happy with what they have. Sounds like Ms. Macy understands this.

Blogs seem to have less issues with status symbols, but there are still some there too. Fortunately bloggers are fairly isolated from the hurts of in person slights.

♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

Good morning, Sarah. I am reading so little lately. Actually, am struggling to get through a work day. The top photo, looking across the water, is so lovely. Really like that one.

Keri Mikulski said...

Sounds intriguing. :) Beautiful pics.

lakeviewer said...

Sarah, this was informative. How good is the writing? Or, are we just exposed to stereotypes of another class?

LOve the photos.

D.A. Riser said...

"The best stories twist upon themselves with double meaning."

Beautifully said. I loved your post, Sarah. Was that a picture of the Roman Forum?

Rose said...

An excellent critique, Sarah! Once again, your photos reinforce details from the stories. For a country that was founded on "equality for all," we have always been very conscious of status, haven't we?

I haven't had much time for reading lately and chose a light mystery paperback for this month. My muscles are getting a workout in the garden these days, but I need to stretch my intellectual ones as well:)

Cid said...

Fantastic review, I will look for "Spoiled" and you photos are wonderful, as usual.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Interesting. I haven't read a collection of contemporary short stories since I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri.

A Cuban In London said...

Echoes of the 'House of Mirth' were ringing in my ears as I was reading your latest review. And Wolfe was a keen observer of that type of society. I remember reading him in uni and being blown away by his in-your-face style. So, I gather that 'Spoiled' is equally in the same category of 'social climbing'. Thanks for the images (the first one is a screamer! :-D) and the commentary. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

On another note, I'm just taking a break from work now and I spent about half an hour trying to enter your blog from one of the school's laptop and it was not letting me. Your blog comes under 'Games' :-). Well, at least good ol' games of the literary kind. My laptop is bonkers, not to worry. I'm finally here. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

This is such a well-rounded review, Sarah. Your descriptions of these stories -- and your well-chosen photographs -- give such a good taste, but without giving the game away.

It does seem like the more money that people have, the less satisfied they tend to be. There is something in human nature, which is then exacerbated by competitive city cultures, that only 'rates' the unobtained . . . or unobtainable.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, you are right. Macy focuses on status. Blogging is a more equal playing ground. People are judged more by what they say than their wealth or physical appearance. Good point!

Mimi, thanks – that was my favorite too. I love when the park is on the verge of bursting into spring.

Keri, thanks! I’ll come visit your book review post soon.

Lakeviewer, the writing is good in that her stories are well structured, but there aren’t stand out sentences that you go back to reread. Her best characters are more than stereotypes. Macy gets the subtle differences of class.

DA, good eye! I visited the Roman Forum with my kids in 2004 before I started my blog. We were living in London for 6 months, and I was e-mailing home photos like that one.

Rose, there seems to be more focus on status in NYC than in Maine. You note the irony well. My favorite thing to do in a garden is read.

Cid, thanks. I noticed you’d signed up for the book review club this month. I’m looking forward to reading your post.

Stacy, Lahiri is one of my favorite short story authors. Macy isn’t as good, but few are. I still enjoyed her collection.

ACIL, Wolfe is more amusing and commercial, but the subject was similar. How funny – I like the idea of a literary gaming blog.

Bee, thanks, I’m looking forward to your book review too. Good observation on the unobtainable. I find that New York bankers talk about money far more than Maine academics who have so much less.

David Cranmer said...

Combo of Cheever and Wolfe interests me. I appreciate learning about a writer I'm unfamiliar with. Thanks.

Mary Ellen said...

Another great review. I like the idea of stories about richly drawn, if less-than-perfect, women. It seems as though this book will make me feel better about my own choices in life!

kaye said...

great review, sounds like it might be an interesting book to read. If you have time, stop by to read my book review thanks :P

pattinase (abbott) said...

You did such a lovely job in presenting this.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

What a beautiful review! Loved your idea for gifting mothers with excellent, but 'creepy' stories. :)

Sarahlynn said...

What a beautifully written (and illustrated) review.

And now I've very curious to know how “The Secret Vote” turned out, as a woman who once faced that same choice . . .

Elizabeth said...

Gosh, this really sounds a book I could enjoy --even though I may loathe the world of the characters.
Such a wonderful thoughtful review.
The idea sort of remind me of the "House of Mirth" one of the saddest books I've ever read.
Your photos f New York in Spring are elegant and lovely.
ps. any interest in writing a haiku?

vicki archer said...

I would love to read this and will definitely put it on my list. Thank you for the review, xv.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, that would be a Cheever-Wolfe cross with a female accent. I’d be interested in your take on Macy.

ME, Spoiled certainly made me feel better about my life by comparison.

Kaye, thanks, I’ll come visit your book review.

Pattinase, welcome to my blog and thank you!

Alyssa, as long as it comes with pampering.

Sarahlynn, thanks. That must have been a hard decision to make.

Elizabeth, you’d love to loathe them. Interesting, ACIL also mentioned House of Mirth. I read another Edith Warton novel, Summer, but now I’m thinking I should read that one. Sorry, not up to haikus right now.

Vicki, I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Spoiled.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Sarah, I'm intrigued by this book thanks to your excellent review. Like Stacy, the last short story collection I read was Lahiri.

I just picked up Brooks' People of the Book - I shared the link to your post on that with my book group; many of the members are excited about discussing it. I'll send you a summary of their reactions to your review next month.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I have read about this book, but frankly I wondered if these were the type of people, although fictional, that I would want to spend time with. As an interior decorator in a high-end arena, I've seen all kinds!!

Anita said...

I love your photos! Your life sounds like what I dreamed of as a kid in CO...the whole Manhattan thing seemed so cool, still does, I guess!

Sarah Laurence said...

FF, I’d love to hear your reaction and theirs, thanks!

Pamela, the irony made for good company.

Anita, thank you and welcome to my blog! When I was a little kid growing up in the city, I dreamed of living in the country. I wanted a dog. I loved living in NYC as a teenager- so much to do and freedom to get around on my own. Now I enjoy visiting.

Tessa said...

I thoroughly enjoy both Wolfe (wasn't the film version of Bonfire an absolute travesty?!) and Curtis Sittenfeld so I was excited to read your excellent review of Caitlin Macy's work. Thanks Sarah, once again, for breathing new life into my 'must read' list!

Sarah Laurence said...

Tessa, I’ve enjoyed your book recommendations too.

Cynthia said...

Thank for the review of "Spoiled", I will certainly check it out, Sarah. I love the photos of New York, the church...the park...the horse, too. Beautiful scenes. I want to have a picnic by the water...it's softly framed and a restful green. Happy Mother's Day. <3

Dave King said...

That was a great run-down on a writer I know nothing about (knew nothing about!) You have given mea great desire to read the stories for myself.

Donna said...

I'm going to add this one to my summer reading list. It sounds very interesting!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, that would make a fine spot for a picnic.

Dave, I’d love to hear what you make of them. Macy is very New York.

Donna, I think you’d enjoy quality of the writing.

Sarahlynn said...

It was painful, at the time. And now my daughter is happy, healthy, clever, and five. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Sarahlynn, I’m so happy that your story had a happy ending. Thanks for sharing it!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Another book for the wish list. Thanks, Sarah! And that first photo is amazing. For a moment, I thought it was England!

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting connection. The London parks remind me a bit of Central Park, especially Hampstead Heath.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Oh my gosh! I'm totally in love with your first shot!! Beautiful composition, Sarah.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Just noticed that your mom is holding the book you reviewed here in your latest post. How funny! Did she enjoy it?

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, thanks. You have such a sharp eye – my mother was reading Spoiled. I gave it to her as a gift, and she really enjoyed the writing. She had a similar reaction to mine.