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Portraits Of Privilege In A New Golden Age

It's difficult to look at the bored, perpetually dissatisfied sophisticates depicted in Caitlin Macy's fiction and not see a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It's actually less a nod than an exuberant wave.) But in this follow-up to her well-received 2000 debut novel The Fundamentals of Play, Macy shows that, in addition to penetrating, witty insight, she shares a more important trait with the chronicler of the Golden Age: a deep empathy for her subjects.

Since the stories in Spoiled are set entirely before the current crash, the collection now seems, "Ozymandias"-like, to document the vanities of a past age. Macy's characters — hedge fund wives, trust-fund babies and dubiously funded expatriates — are direct beneficiaries by proxy of a financial and cultural boom that, like the Big Bang, created its own ecosystem, complete with a hierarchy of species whose signifiers are not only incomprehensible but invisible to the rest of us.

Macy's strength is the narrative equivalent of synecdoche: the odd bit of information that sums up the whole. In Christie, a friend's fiancé is dismissed thusly: "Bruewald had gone to one of those Euro institutes with the word polytechnical in the name." In the same story, the fact that a woman constantly mentions she's from Greenwich conjures a battery of negative associations about her class. Bait and Switch lets us in on the priceless status accorded those whose children not only fluently but unthinkingly converse in another language. And in Taroundant, a newly married woman is so concerned with whether the cultural explorations of her honeymoon are sufficiently nonchalant that she puts her fiancé into harm's way.

Like their studiously carefree forebears, Macy's characters attempt to minimize their social privilege rather than reveling in it. Whether it's a hedge fund wife consumed with being her nanny's best friend or a young man patiently exhausted by his girlfriend's attempts to get him interested in her boarding school, they zero in on the petty fixations of their circle as if, by close examination, they could be freed of them. But it is the deep irony of the collection that the main characters, trapped in their lives of willed indifference, are less free than the service staff they employ. A maid, after all, gets to go home.

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Lizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.