Blue Bicycle Books, Charleston, SC

Recommendation: Caitlyn Macy’s Mrs.

Caitlin Macy’s Mrs. is about both big money — the hedge funds of the newly-rich, the investment banks of the established families — and little money, the hundred-dollar bills a billionaire’s new wife carries in her purse. (My favorite detail in this detailed novel comes when an unnamed chorus of rich women, looking back on their days starting out in New York, recall having to “buy four new spices at $6.99 a pop” for a dinner party thrown to impress.)

The book opens as Philippa Skinker shows up at an elite preschool, late for noon pick-up. She’s the picture of aloof: a former model, married into old money. Philippa steps out of a cab and says the driver is over-charging her and she can’t pay him. The chorus of responsible, Normal-Rich mothers all clamor to help, twenty-dollar-bills flashed on the sidewalk like a betting scene in a movie.

The women both condescend and look up to the statuesque Philippa, treating her like you might a great-grandmother, someone to be both respected and tended to. She’s the one who they think never had to suffer or pay her dues: buy the $6.99 spices or “pound around the Reservoir in Central Park after dark to squeeze a run in.”

Months later, on the same sidewalk, in front of the parents and toddlers and the headmistress, Philippa Skinker confronts another parent, the new-rich hedge fund billionaire John Curtis, loudly insisting he pay a very old, illicit and painful debt.

It’s a brilliant, climactic counterpoint to the opening scene. Being too beautiful and old-money to have cab fare is forgivable. Demanding payment of a personal debt in public is crass, tactless, jarring.

When Curtis balks and when Gwen Hogan, the most sympathetic character in the novel, the mom on the other side of the financial divide from Philippa and the Normal-Rich Chorus, appears at Philippa’s elbow and says “Give her the money John,” I got chills. It’s a powerful moment of sisterhood, friendship cemented by crossing lines in the sand.

While we’ve been led to believe the Big Plot of the novel is about men and their Real Money — the hedge fund Curtis runs, the investment bank Skinker runs and the insider trading Gwen’s G-Man husband is prosecuting — this is the emotional climax of the book. Gwen and Philippa rip the hundred-dollar bills out of Curtis’s wife’s wallet and Philippa shoves the money into her coat pockets and leaves:

She had a long, ground-covering stride, and as she walked away, one or two of the hundreds escaped her pockets and floated down, then several at once, and when she didn’t stop to stuff them back in, they trailed behind her like the magic dust that follows Disney princesses.

They say that behind every fortune is a scandal, but behind a lot of fortunes are a million little hustles, a million little transactions, drops of rain that accumulate and flow downstream. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy’s wife gives a great, withering speech comparing bond trading to collecting the crumbs that fall off a piece of cake.

Mrs. shares a lot with Bonfire, another whip-smart, well-researched, zeitgeisty novel of the financial world. Like several characters in Mrs., Tom Wolfe’s McCoy went to Yale and lives on Park Ave. We see him at school drop-off, admiring the nice figures of the other kids’ mothers. Macy gives us the thoughts of G-Man Dan Hogan as he runs across the Brooklyn Bridge; Wolfe’s prosecutor Larry Kramer is a similar physical presence, constantly flexing his sternocleidomastoid muscles to hilarious effect. But Macy, while just as insightful (any middle-aged guy will identify with the thoughts on Dan’s run), has less of Wolfe’s smirking journalistic reserve, she dives deeper emotionally.

Macy’s affection for her characters is so strong, her characters so fascinating and complex and important, it’s frustrating to think that because she is a woman who writes about women as well as men, writes about the little money as well as the big, not nearly as many men will read this book as Bonfire. That’s a shame, because it’s a fantastic social novel, one that just happens to be called Mrs. and have an orange-and-teal wallpaper cover. Her description of a preschool fundraiser or an awkward playdate is as well-observed as any dance or dinner in Anna Karenina.

Mrs. deserves a wide audience of both men and women; I’ll be recommending it a lot this year.

— Jonathan Sanchez, owner, Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston.

Caitlyn Macy will be in Charleston Mon., Mar. 12 for an Author Luncheon. More information and tickets here.



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