“Mrs.” is a novel that suffers — or benefits — from so many comparisons that it’s hard to categorize. Here we have the tiresomely familiar — or cattily amusing, take your pick — New York City mothers jockeying for their offspring’s position in primary school, as they speculate about a newcomer’s provenance, worry about an unsavory influence, lobby for an invitation to a party that will prove a) excruciating, b) hilarious or c) enlightening.
Outliers, thus at the center of the story, are Gwen, who doesn’t wear makeup, and so might be mistaken for a nanny, and Philippa, a beautiful ex-model with a drinking habit, a stalwart old-world banker for a husband and a secret dark past that, in light of her aloof disregard for the other mothers, is likely to prove her undoing.
These two, Gwen and Philippa, knew each other a long time ago. They also knew another new mother’s vile husband, John D. Curtis (he added the D for a Rockefeller touch), whose nasty past sadly intersected with Philippa’s. This puts her stolid husband into a terrible bind, blackmail and insider-trading-wise, which Gwen’s husband, who works for the U.S. attorney’s office, is investigating.
There’s much that’s entertaining here, most of all the strange disconnect between the worlds that the characters occupy — from the fine old lady, all good and proper, who runs the school, to the fading old banking family Philippa has married into, to Minnie, the exuberantly nouveau riche wife of the villain (a Rosie Perez type), to the earnest Gwen and her earnestly ambitious husband.
As Caitlin Macy brings these characters into conflict, ostensibly because of differences of class, what registers instead is how conflicts of class are really matters of character — at least in this case.
Gwen and Philippa and Minnie, as genuine characters with their own unique logic and emotions, transcend the limits of class that seem to frame the story, limits that are clearly drawn by the many minor characters who now and then become a chorus of observers on the action.
Just so, “Mrs.” gives us two classes of fiction: one a character-driven drama, in which people make bad choices or stupid mistakes and have to pay; the other a social comedy of sorts, where the difference between old money and new supplies the conflict and determines the outcome.
The two don’t really mesh, which may be Macy’s story after all: In a world where worth is measured by brand loyalty and tribal affiliation, where does the singular, unruly character fit?
If you can’t have “The Great Gatsby” in a Jane Austen novel, that’s not a tragedy. But it is awfully funny and sad, and that’s enough.
Ellen Akins (ellenakins.com) is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin.
By: Caitlin Macy.
Publisher: Lee & Boudreaux Books/Little Brown, 352 pages, $27