Book Reviews

Stephen McCauley

Flatiron Books

(David) thought of his true mission as helping his teenaged clients gain a realistic understanding of who they were and what they could achieve in life once they stepped away from their parents’ self-aggrandizing fantasies of them. Their parents had been so insistent about instilling self-esteem, they’d fallen into the trap of telling their kids they could do anything. Unfortunately, almost everyone interprets doing “anything” as doing the same three or four glamorous and impressive things—going to Harvard, retiring before ever working, giving an Oscar acceptance speech, and becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg, except hot.

                                from My Ex-Life

 

  

Laughing and Wincing at Ourselves

 

“All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy.”

My nomination for this summer’s beach read is Stephen McCauley’s newest novel, My Ex-Life—light, frothy and funny with a strong dose of social satire mixed in.

David and Julie married thirty years ago when both were young, silly and gay. Until David discovered that he really was gay. They parted friends, Julie remaining in Boston and David leaving for San Francisco (of course.)

Julie became an art teacher and married Henry; David made a career as an “independent, full-service college counselor,” helping rich kids get into a school of their parents’ choice. Now, both coming up on sixty, their lives are falling apart on opposite coasts. Henry has left Julie for a younger woman. (Why is it that men never pursue older women?—Sure, there’s Emmanuel Macron, but he’s French so it doesn’t count.)

David’s lover has left him, too—though, understandably, not for a younger woman, but for an older man, who by an interesting coincidence just happens to be wealthy. Plus, the rental that David has lived in for decades is being sold, pricing him out of every housing market but Stockton’s.

Julie lives in a beautiful old seaside house, next to a large mansion “built in an epic style Julie thought of as Late Hedge Fund.” She operates her house as an Airbnb, encountering a mix of interesting characters, such as the couple who promote themselves as “professional personal organizers.” (“We’re the ones who coined the term ‘messology.’”) In addition, Julie and Henry’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Mandy, is having her own problems.

Given all this, Julie invites David to stay at her place as he helps Mandy get into a college. Together again, the former lovers re-discover the friendship they once shared and have missed over all these years. (Sexual compatibility is so overrated.)

McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection, writes with a sharp, mordant wit that skewers our contemporary society where people aspire to “social media mediocrity;” where age doesn’t bring wisdom so much as “early-onset ennui;” and where marriage offers that special intimacy of “having lived together for decades and therefore knowing precisely where to stick the daggers.”

He makes us simultaneously laugh and wince as we recognize ourselves in his characters, blindly pursuing love, happiness, status, stability, and eternal youth-like-ness. Such satire is best read lying on some hot beach with a cold drink, far from the madding crowd that is us.

 

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.