If you think the social pressures in high school are brutal, they’re a cakewalk compared to what goes on among the parents in an exclusive Manhattan private nursery school, the setting for Caitlin Macy’s withering new novel, Mrs.
As in her previous fiction, The Fundamentals of Play and Spoiled, Macy’s focus is on class and social insecurity. She has been compared to Edith Wharton and John Cheever, but the bonfire she makes of the vanities of the Park Avenue-duplex-and-Duplo set recalls Tom Wolfe even more. With impressive anthropological precision, she nails “a society that ran on Lycra and imported Labradoodles,” an insular community that, having attained extreme wealth, seeks other markers of achievement — school admissions, charitable foundation boards, exotic travel, tight abs and just the right shade of blond highlights.
Macy throws her characters together in the crucible of a small, tony Upper East Side preschool. The novel opens brilliantly, with the makings of a terrific screenplay. Just back from Christmas break, “a crush of mothers” bundled in down coats and furs gather to pick up their children and trade vacation stories. Macy skewers the reigning sense of entitlement with deftly interwoven snippets of conversation, in which the women try to downplay the privileges of ski vacations and hired help by focusing on so-called hardships: “… sick the whole time, all five of us.” “… quit over the phone …” “… torn ACL the very first run of the very first day …” “… paid her all summer ….”
Of course, it would be difficult to sustain a novel on a chorus of catty chatter, and Macy is smart enough not to try (though she does have her Greek chorus of rich wives weigh in on the action periodically). Enter ponytailed, barefaced Gwen Hogan, who shivers on the group’s outskirts in her hooded parka, waiting to take her mild-mannered daughter home on the subway to their modest Yorkville flat for a lunch of home-cooked meatloaf. (The joke is that the richer the kids, the worse they eat: No home-cooked meals for these mini-moguls, whose nannies are instructed to feed them the frozen chicken fingers they demand.)
Mary Hogan attends St. Timothy’s on financial aid, though she’s hardly a have-not, just a have-less. The plain-Jane, meatloaf-eating Hogans provide necessary contrast, the better to highlight the excesses of New York’s new Gilded Age. Mary’s parents both attended Yale on scholarship (as did Macy), but Gwen, balking at hiring domestic help to care for her child, opted to leave her job as a chemical engineer, while Dan chose to quit corporate law for the less lucrative business of prosecuting white collar criminals in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Macy builds a collision course of a plot involving the obscenities of ruthless ambition and extreme wealth, date rape, and insider trading. At its center is Philippa Lye (yes, Lye, as in poisonous chemical and falsehood), a beautiful former model with a troubled past and an ugly drinking problem. Somehow, against all probability, this damaged woman and terrible mother is married to the nicest guy in the book, Jed Skinker (yes, Skinker), who does his duty by his family’s private investment bank and his wobbly wife, even though he’d rather be working on his family’s Connecticut farm.
Macy rotates between various characters’ points of view, including a newcomer to St. Tim’s who’s frank about having married up from her childhood in Spanish Harlem. Seven-year-old Laura, the oldest of the Skinkers’ three children, sings the familiar but still affecting refrain of a child struggling to compensate for an erratic mother, though her plaintive tale is undercut by observations that are too sophisticated for her years. (A typical apercu, after her brother calls out another kid for cheating at pin-the-tail: “Her brother, she perceived, would go through life irately pointing out unfairnesses.”)
Mrs. is fueled in part by scorn and Schadenfreude, but it might appeal most to the self-absorbed strata Macy mocks – or those who found Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue fascinating. The plot relies on too many small world coincidences, some of which are easier to buy than others, but it’ll keep you turning pages anyway. Several of the marriages similarly strain credulity: Would a ruthless social climber really wed a divorcée with neither money nor social cachet?
But to her credit, Macy tries to paint in shades other than black and white, eliciting sympathy for some of her strivers while granting others limited personal appeal despite their loftier values. I have mixed feelings about the ending — I’m being careful not to say too much — which plays with readers’ expectations and hopes. On the one hand, it felt like Macy was straining too hard toward the gravitas and nuance of Whartonesque tragedy in order to land her final ironic punches. On the other, I’m still thinking about it.