Real Housewives of the Upper East Side
It seems like a case of bad timing. Caitlin Macy’s new collection of stories, Spoiled, examines the anxieties and insecurities of Manhattan’s moneyed class. Manhattan’s moneyed class? Boo! Hiss!
Is there any social group currently more vilified? Aren’t New York’s investment bankers and fund managers—many of the husbands in Spoiled—co-architects of our Great Recession? Surely we don’t presently care, as we’re asked to in the story “The Red Coat,” about a well-off Upper East Side housewife made insecure by her Ukrainian cleaning lady. Or in “Annabel’s Mother,” about the humiliation a rich Manhattan mom feels being outed for “just renting” in Nantucket. Spoiled is no Damn, It Feels Good to Be A Banker, that celebration of the Wall Street lifestyle published—awkwardly!—in August, but it does feel a bit behind the cultural moment.
It’s striking how imperfect, even unlikeable, most of Spoiled’s women are. They’re petulant with their husbands, quick to have an uncharitable thought, or to indulge their irresponsible side.
Well, so what? A little populist bloodlust against the rich shouldn’t disqualify them as a subject of contemporary fiction. And who says fiction has to be timely? Considered as historical snapshots of our recently departed Gilded Age, Spoiled is incisive and unsparing. As in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, it is the city’s well-heeled intelligentsia under scrutiny here, that coolly detached crowd that nonetheless drops alma maters into conversation well into their thirties. “It was the fashion among her old roommates from Yale—tomboyish and cynical,” writes Macy of one of her protagonists, “to belittle one’s pregnancy, to treat it as an absurd moment in their otherwise genderless lives.” At this social altitude, snobbery is amusingly complex.
In “ Christie” (which originally ran in The New Yorker) a college friend from Greenwich marries a rich European aristocrat at The Pierre. A coup, no? No. The narrator explains: “He had grown up half over here and half over there—in Bavaria, was it? Or Croatia? At any rate, it wasn’t Umbria or Aix or anywhere worth trying to lock in an invitation for.”
Spoiled’s considerable wit has a knowing air; you can’t help but think that Macy is writing about this privileged world from the inside. It’s a suspicion confirmed by the rather gossipy profile in The New York Times last week. Macy does indeed live on the Upper East Side in a pre-war co-op off 5th Avenue (“yes, it’s below 96th Street,” the reporter adds, helpfully); her older daughter may not have made it into Spence, Brearly, or Chapin, but is now happily ensconced at La Scuola d’Italia on East 96th. (When did promoting a novel become such an embarrassing exercise in self-exposure?)
The important thing, of course, is that Macy can write. “The Secret Vote” is a beautifully wrought examination of a mid-thirties woman’s dilemma about her own pregnancy, and “Eden’s Gate,” about a prep-school-girl-turned-actress confronting an old classmate in a restaurant, is taut and wicked. Even the stories that end on slightly unsatisfying notes (clunky endings seem to be Macy’s weakness) introduce memorable, convincing characters along the way. It’s striking how imperfect, even unlikeable, most of Spoiled’s women are. They’re petulant with their husbands, quick to have an uncharitable thought, or to indulge their irresponsible side. Macy may be a member of the world she’s writing about, but she’s not protective of it. The collection’s title is apt, and also serves as its unifying theme; in these stories, wealth, and status do have a curdling effect. Which, come to think of it, may make Spoiled more timely than it seems.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.