In Caitlin Macy's new novel Mrs. (Lee Boudreaux Books, 352 pp., ★★★ out of four), we are reminded that class lines — while they may be superficial — run deep.
Set on New York's Upper East Side, post-Bernie Madoff and the financial crisis, Macy's tale about the haves and the have-nots is as old as time. Though in this case the haves are worth billions and the have-nots are upper-middle-class Manhattanites.
Our introduction to this world takes place outside prestigious St. Timothy’s, a Manhattan private preschool where mothers and nannies arrive ceremoniously to pick up their children.
At the center of it all is Philippa Lye, who is married to Jedidiah Skinker, the wealthy scion of the last family-held investment bank in New York. Larger than life, Philippa is the sun that all the other women revolve around. A former model, Philippa is as mysterious and aloof as her past.
We learn about Philippa’s ascent to the upper echelons of New York society through two other characters with the "Mrs." title. First there is Gwen Hogan, wife of Dan, a dogged prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Gwen’s middle-class upbringing makes her more at home with the teachers and nannies than the other mothers at St. Timothy's.
And then there is Minnie Curtis, wife of John, a slick and well-known financier. A native of Spanish Harlem, she is a newcomer to both the school and wealth alike. It is through these two women, with a little help from their husbands, that we learn Philippa’s story.
Macy is deft at employing class to create conflict. By using multiple points of view and flashbacks, she weaves together a clever story that spurs the reader along. Each narrative provides a piece of the puzzle that is Philippa Lye, warts and all.
Mrs. is a solid read, more entertaining than enlightening. But there is something missing. Gwen’s middle-class background is juxtaposed against the world of nannies, drivers and country homes, and her judgments and perceptions provide an entry point for the reader. But there is something lacking in Gwen. She is real, but she is not relatable.
Or perhaps it is the under-development of the Greek chorus Macy employs to show the perceived difference in classes. The observations of this nameless group of mothers come so infrequently that they prove superfluous.
What Mrs. does best is prove that class is mostly a state of mind, that the power of the rich derives from what we bestow on them, not from some innate birthright. Mrs. reminds us that the rich are not so different from you and me — they rise and fall just the same.