DH: Caitlin Macy’s collection, Spoiled, was one of the most delightful reads that I had last year. I still remember the plots of many of the stories which is a very good sign of how much I enjoyed them. They’re ingenious, early 21st-century stories, about the coastal upper class.
There are two ways to consider what the word “spoiled” means. The more obvious meaning is of a character who has had it too good. But my favorite connotation is “spoiled” in the sense of being ruined, of being a deeply flawed character.
In that connection, one of CM’s most effective techniques is the unreliable narrator. CM’s timing is impeccable as the reader gradually realizes that the person who is telling you the story may not be a trustworthy witness. In this way, characters reflect back on themselves in ways that provide ingenious puzzles for the reader. These are thoughtful stories. They are also gossip-on-a-stick.
SF Chronicle included Spoiled in its Best of ’09. Caitlin has also just finished a feature script called ‘The Day Job.” Now that’s a movie that I would pay good money to see.
When We Fell In Love by Caitlin Macy
I just emailed one of my best friends, Julie, and asked her when she got me hooked on Laurie Colwin. We started E-debating, back and forth, whether it was high school or college and finally Jules wrote, “Just go home and read the inscription on Another Marvelous Thing!” Okay, so she was right: it was college. In my mind, I’ve been reading Colwin since third or fourth grade; that’s how internalized she is in my reading psyche. I loved her at once (was it Happy All the Time? or the stories — the Lone Pilgrim?), and in college and my post-college/publishing-job phase I read everything she’d written and anything new she came out with. I ferreted out her column in Gourmet and later on was given the two cookbooks, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking; the former remains a Bible.
I want to say that I fell not only for Colwin’s style but also for her subjects. Her characters are pretty young professionals, often New Yorkers, newly grown-up, newly alive to the pleasures of adulthood. The young women work in publishing and hurry home to feed their boyfriends omelets for supper in tiny Village walk-ups. There’s an air of old-money, of time spent in Paris, of the English nursery. I think it was the conflating in my mind of Colwin’s own life (there’s quite a bit of biological chat in the food writing) and that of her characters that gave me the idea I could model myself on some sublime combination of them and her. I wanted to be the kind of writer she was and write about the kind of people she wrote about and I also wanted to be the kind of person she wrote about – I wanted to be pretty and publishing and have an apartment in the Village. Of course, I’d worshiped Gatsby in high school and Jane Eyre in my Victorian-novel class, same as everyone else. But neither of them provided the career/life blueprints that I could read into Family Happiness and “The Country Wedding.”
Two years out of college (publishing job dispensed with) I was doing an MFA at Columbia and our teacher asked us in workshop one day who some of our influences were. I gushed over Laurie of course; my devotion was very fresh in my mind as Colwin had, unexpectedly and in middle age, died 18 months previously. Julie and I had attended her jammed, uptown memorial at Symphony Space . (I remember we befriended a couple in the ticket-scrum outside who cried, “We’ve driven down from Maine!”) My classmates readily corroborated the Colwin appeal — “Love her” — but my professor’s answer took me aback. She told me she’d suspected as much. “You should watch that,” she said. “That could be a dangerous influence for you.”
I was shocked. Whatever could she mean?
A decade and a half later there’s no question in my mind. But first, a little elucidation for those readers who are not now nor have ever been Colwin-devotees.
Colwin’s style is choppy and dramatic; it’s given to cute, sweeping pronouncements that one can hook onto with ease: “She was a wonderful cook and housekeeper.” “With their futures thus assured, they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they should marry.” “It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush.”
Colwin’s characters have names like Vincent Cardworthy and Misty Berkowitz; Guido Morris and Paula Pierce-Williams — and those are all in the same novel.
Colwin doesn’t show; she tells: she introduces her perfectly desirable young men and women with long narratives about their wonderfully enviable pasts: the procurement of the German-Jewish family fortune, the post-college year at the Sorbonne, the summers in the English countryside, the graduate degrees in curating. As far as the present, she’s given to writing character descriptions like (this is my parody): “Mimi felt that there was nothing better in life than, on a cold day, to come inside and find a well-laid fire in the hearth and a slice of chocolate cake in the larder. It just so happened that Frazier agreed.”
Other things: all of the Jews in her books are so assimilated as to be indistinguishable from the WASPS.
Colwin always cuts away before the sex scenes.
The dramas invariably play out in beautifully appointed haute-bourgeois houses and apartments. A predilection for things like copper pots and staffordshire creamers occasionally substitutes for moral development in the protagonists.
You can see where all of this is going. Yes, precisely: Colwin is the Nancy Meyers of literary fiction. By that I don’t mean simply the sexily attractive people having minor problems in richly attractive settings both Meyers and Colwin are prone to giving us. Call it an artistic class issue, perhaps: like Meyers’s films, Colwin’s writing is just smart enough.
What I understood from my professor’s surprising but enlightening comment — after the bit of torment that goes with resetting a basic tenet of one’s taste — was that while it was fine for Laurie Colwin to write like Laurie Colwin, I wasn’t to try to write like her. Some people are not okay to model oneself after — one has to aim higher. Like that all-important English teacher, Colwin made me think the whole endeavor was possible; then, I had to move on. Don’t get me wrong. If I were to stumble across Another Marvelous Thing this afternoon, I would read it cover to cover before bedtime (even while making Laurie Colwin’s creamed jalapeno spinach and mustard baked chicken for supper — love her). But the people I write about are no longer happy all the time.