The Haves and Have-Mores
Little, Brown, $27
I’ve never met Caitlin Macy, but I feel as if I’ve run into some of the characters in her perceptive and searing new novel, because they happen to inhabit my neighborhood — the Upper East Side of New York City.
In the cinematic opening scene of “Mrs.,” several mothers and babysitters are gathered in a wintry chill at the entrance of St. Timothy’s, an exclusive preschool where admission often hinges on influence, and toddlers can be waitlisted before they’re even toilet-trained. It’s the end of the school’s half-day session, and the children are about to be released and retrieved. The mothers seem practically generic in their broken bits of idle, innocuous chatter — “Look at you in your fur,” “torn ACL the very first run of the very first day,” “Doug will only ski in March” — until three of them come quickly into focus.
Philippa Lye and Minnie Curtis are clearly the “haves” of this triad, with apartments on the right avenue and husbands high up in high finance, while Gwen Hogan, who lives in a building too far east (my own neck of the woods) and lacking a doorman, is merely a “have-not-as-much.” She’s a stay-at-home mom, having given up her job as a chemical engineer years before, while her husband, Dan, has chosen public service over far more lucrative work in the private sector. As an assistant D.A., he earns $150,000 a year, a sum that qualifies their only child, Mary, for a significant scholarship, a.k.a. a “reduced ‘commitment,’ ” at St. Tim’s, and places them on a lower rung of the school’s social strata. Some of the other mothers aren’t quite sure who Gwen is. “Gwen? You know, Gwen . . . what’s-her-name, the one who looks like Lally’s au pair?”
Gwen is torn between pride in the choices she and Dan have made and pangs of embarrassment about their divergence from the better-heeled families at St. Tim’s. Standing outside the school, she muses about offering leftover meat loaf to Mary for lunch. “There was a shame over here on Sixty-Third and Park in cooking from scratch, in not simply serving chicken nuggets and other branded, microwavable products — Go-Gurts and Veggie Stix. Perhaps it reeked of the middle class or seemed grungy. Gwen had quickly learned to keep silent.”
Among the wealthy young matrons, Minnie Curtis, “the New Mother,” is an outlier, a sexy Latina who was John Curtis’s secretary before she became his wife. Her daughter, from a previous marriage, was accepted at St. Tim’s midyear, a notable and suspicious exception to the rule. Minnie is the subject of much passive-aggressive speculation.
“It was a little cheesy, the way Mrs. Curtis was made up, pink blush and glossy lips, but it worked. It was sweet, how polished she was, like a little girl before a birthday party. The handbag might be a little much for ten a.m. . . . A black, quilted Chanel purse; how many years had Minnie Curtis née Colón desired such a thing before she felt she could afford it?”
Minnie is frank about having married for money — for “a better life,” as she puts it — and fearless, even gauche, in her pursuit of Philippa Lye, the center of everyone else’s envious and deferential, nearly worshipful, attention. Philippa may go through most of her days in an alcoholic fog, but she’s a great beauty, and she’s married to Jedediah Skinker —“the scion himself”— the head of Skinker, Farr, a private bank that’s been in his family for almost a century.
This novel (like so much of contemporary American fiction) is largely about class and corruption, and Ms. Macy handles both with authority. She skewers St. Tim’s elitist community in a single, stinging paragraph. “This wasn’t a society in which one needed to know whether one’s neighbor could be trusted — or had the same values one had. This was a society that ran on Lycra and imported Labradoodles, on making a virtue of a pervasive lack of any kind of necessity: deciding to pick up the kids yourself when you could have sent the nanny.”
As for corruption, a couple of the upper-echelon figures in “Mrs.” are on crumbling legal ground. In a neatly dovetailed, yet believable, coincidence, Gwen’s husband, Dan, is investigating the probable commission of a white-collar crime by John Curtis, an obnoxious hedge-fund “zillionaire” who has added the middle initial D. to his name in a not-so-subtle reference to John D. Rockefeller. To Dan’s growing discomfort, the more reputable and likable Jed Skinker appears to be involved in Curtis’s wrongdoing.
Several of the novel’s main characters share a tangled history and some dark secrets. The narrative shifts perspectives and moves back and forth between the domestic and corporate worlds as the intrigue builds. What is John Curtis’s hold on Jed Skinker? Why do the words “I was just lying there and he . . .” keep reverberating in Gwen’s head? Why is Philippa Lye, who seems to be in a fugue state even when she’s sober, so carelessly, cruelly offhand with her three children? And why does she leave the house without enough cab fare?
Among St. Tim’s mothers, who “didn’t, as a rule, do comedy,” the latter is more troubling. They’re alarmed when Philippa suggests that she might take a bus, or even walk home from the school. “In this weather?” one of them asks, incredulously, gesturing skyward. A few of the women vie with one another to ply Philippa with twenties, all of which she blithely accepts, foreshadowing a marvelous scene much later in the book.
The children in “Mrs.” are as sharply rendered as their parents, and plainly shaped by them. Much of the novel is from Gwen Hogan’s sympathetic point of view, and Mary is a thoughtful observer, too. She’s amused by the raucous behavior of Minnie’s daughter, Arabella, who is older than her preschool classmates and the epitome of brattiness. She won’t share her high-tech toys, or submit to any adult authority. Philippa’s eldest, Laura, who “must’ve been the quietest seven-year-old on the Upper East Side,” tends to blame herself for familial chaos, and tries to smooth things over, like so many children in dysfunctional households.
My only gripe is that we don’t learn anything about the inner lives of the doormen, housecleaners, and nannies who faithfully serve the affluent families of St. Tim’s. But perhaps that’s a deliberate omission, since they are also seen only peripherally by their employers.
And we do get an occasional glimpse of the “downstairs,” chiefly through Gwen’s and Mary’s eyes. When Arabella has a tantrum during a playdate, her nanny, Lupe, implores, “Arabella, princesita, don’t talk to Mami like that. Arabella, your friend —” only to be ignored, and interrupted by her charge’s shrieking. At lavish private parties, Gwen, stuck in her own quietude and the no man’s land of the upper middle class, drifts toward the hired help — the waiters and bartenders — only to be reminded that she has no more in common with them than with her hosts.
The novel, leisurely paced at first, picks up speed as it goes along, accelerating toward an exciting denouement in which the secrets that are only hinted at in the beginning are revealed, a catastrophe occurs, and some necessary justice is meted out. In the end, Philippa Lye turns out to be the tragic heroine of “Mrs.,” Minnie Curtis, a (somewhat complicit) victim, and Gwen Hogan the story’s moral heart. One can almost imagine the grown-up lives their children will lead.
Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include “An Available Man,” “Summer Reading,” and “Hearts.” She and her husband lived part time in Springs for a number of years.
Caitlin Macy’s family roots in Sag Harbor date back to the 19th century. She will read at BookHampton in East Hampton on Friday, June 8, at 7 p.m.