[5 June 2009]
In these hard economic times, even wealthy people are experiencing heightened anxiety. Luxury item shoppers are concealing their purchases in brown paper bags, their signs of status turned into self-consciousness. It’s this type of rich guilt, both consciously and unconsciously, that’s present in Spoiled Caitlin Macy’s first short story collection.
Macy’s set of female characters are fundamentally unsettled. They try to be like everyone else, but at the same time they want to be better. This is exemplified in “Christie”. Macy doesn’t tell the story from Christie’s point of view, instead narrating from her friend’s point of view. Through Christie, Macy is able to portray the struggle of moving up in class. For Christie, that struggle began in her affluent hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, where she was of the minority middle class.
Christie eventually reaches upper class by marrying well—a man with a family castle in Europe. And she doesn’t let the narrator, or anyone else forget it. Since the story is told from a calculated distance, Macy is able to explicitly berate Christie’s lifestyle, one that includes pretentious Christmas cards emblazoned with the family crest. But at the same time, she exposes the narrator’s own insecurities and not surprisingly, the narrator realizes she’s the one whose been trying too hard.
While “Christie” ends predictably enough, it’s still a nuanced look at the delicate female relationship, especially those among the upper class in Manhattan. Macy revels in exposing her characters flaws, which are a product of the close-knit, yet emotionally distant society they exist in. But ultimately her female characters are still likable. That’s because Macy crafts scenes of privileged urban life—gated parks, equestrian competitions, lavish vacations—with skepticism rather than acceptance.
Two stories delve into similar themes: the complicated relationship between a rich woman and her hired help. In “Annabel’s Mother”, Liz is a new stay-at-home mom who meets eight-year-old Annabel and her nanny Marva at their local park. When Liz learns that Annabel’s mother is a corporate executive who doesn’t spend much time with her daughter, and denies raises for Marva, Liz hires Marva herself. But it’s really Liz’s preoccupation with Annabel’s mother, a woman she’s never met, that motives her, and it inevitably leads to disappointment.
In “The Red Coat” Macy’s female character has similar misplaced intentions. Trish is newly married and without a job. She’s reaching for the upper class, and out of boredom hires a housekeeper for her small one-bedroom apartment. Evgenia is an Ukranian immigrant whose straightforward, arrogant manner infuriates Trish. Evgenia wears her red coat proudly despite its torn lining and cheap fabric, and walks through the streets of Manhattan with authority. This infuriates Trish, and eventually leads her to act like a child.
What Macy does so expertly throughout the collection is to continue finding ways to make a well-worn theme—money doesn’t equal happiness—new again. She does this partly by zeroing in on the daily trials of getting noticed in Manhattan, like competing with models for a bartender’s attention or living up to the scrutiny of housewives at the park. These scenes come to represent something much larger, as the sense of peace that comes with being rich is eroded away.
Not all of Macy’s stories are so rooted in class—some give new meaning to the idea of “spoiled”. In “Bad Ghost” Stacey is a successful television writer in Los Angeles who comes to New York for the memorial of a Margery, a successful young adult author who she used to baby-sit for. Stacey babysat Margery’s daughter, Helena, and when she sees Helena for the first time in decades—dressed in cheap clothes, loud—Stacey immediately judges her. Stacey wonders if she could have done something to better Helena’s life. But what Stacey doesn’t realize is that it’s Helena, not Stacey, who has turned out all right.
With these stories Macy isn’t setting out to make a quick read full of “Housewives of New York City”. Instead, Macy creates characters that are more than their zip code, and she lets them come to that realization in startling and unexpected ways. The timelessness of her nuanced characters, well-crafted dialogue, and wit far outweigh the timeliness of the theme.