Unease on the Upper East Side

Spoiled: Stories
By Caitlin Macy
Random House, 220 pages, $24

To start any book about a certain privileged class of New Yorkers with an Edith Wharton quotation is a bold and, some might say, risky proposition. And yet in the case of Spoiled, the new and splendid collection of nine short stories by Caitlin Macy, we have another talented writer willing to ruthlessly slash past the glossy surface of the well-heeled and overly groomed lives of Manhattanites living in the early years of a new century.

Ms. Macy touched upon many of these same themes of money, class, entitlement and the unease and anxiety they can bring in her 2000 novel The Fundamentals of Play, but thanks to the confines and structure of the short story, she is able to bring all sorts of different flavors of disquietude to her characters here: a recently married woman who is intimidated by her new, freakily self-confident house cleaner in “The Red Coat”; a mid-30s financier awaiting the results of her amniocentesis in “The Secret Vote”; a young mother who tries to do right by her nanny with disastrous results in “Annabel’s Mother”; and, in “Eden’s Gate,” a Los Angeles scion trying to decide whether to propose while on a trip with his actress girlfriend to the New England town where she attended boarding school. Within Ms. Macy’s world are people whom most of us, with occasional stomach-lurching realization, will recognize. They are well educated, introspective, deeply flawed and often deceptive—toward others but mostly toward themselves—and then they worry about that, too. They drink cappuccinos on Madison Avenue, vacation in exotic locales, always look neatly pressed and exercised into as small a size as possible (“In the early nineties,” writes Ms. Macy in an early story, “she had been an aerobics queen, logging two, three hours a day at the gym; now, of course, she was into yoga and Pilates but, ‘to tell you the truth,’ she’d confessed to me earlier in the afternoon, ‘I kind of miss the screaming and the jumping up and down.”). 

In “Christie” the first-person narrator recounts the decade since graduating from Colgate when she and the title character, a pretty girl who never failed to mention that she hailed from Greenwich, Conn., moved to New York and drifted into different circles. Our narrator kept tabs on her frenemy with coffee dates used purely to gather ammunition against her: the number of men Christie dated over the years, her overpriced Pierre wedding, her registry (“they had registered for everything but the kitchen sink, in anticipation, evidently, of dinners for sixteen at which oysters would be served and finger bowls required.”). She takes smug satisfaction—she and her husband would never live beyond their means!—in making fun of Christie’s new life with a European husband and all the pretensions that surround such a union.

But years later, when she runs into Christie in front of the Carnegie Hill building she and her husband have been longing to gain entry to, and accepts her old pseudo-friend’s offer for a glass of wine that turns into four, she realizes how much jealousy and jostling for social acceptance she herself was guilty of. And this is where Ms. Macy’s characters reach beyond their privileged Upper East Side existences and into broader realities. “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.” No matter where you live, you know one of those.

Sara Vilkomerson writes about movies for The Observer. She can be reached at svilkomerson@observer.com.

*Collage photo from Flickr via cloneofsnake
Unease on the Upper East Side