“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley


myexlifeIn Stephen McCauley’s brilliant novel, “My Ex-Life”, David Hedges’ life has hit “a season of aggrieved discontent.” He helps San Francisco rich kids get into the colleges of their (parents’) choice – the legitimate way: essays, scoring high on entrance tests, and community service. Having to convince kids to care and parents to have realistic expectations is exasperating. His younger boyfriend has left him for a richer, better catch. And the cherished carriage house he rents at a reasonable rate in the city with the country’s highest rents is being sold, and he is getting kicked out. His only comfort these days is the Thai takeout joint that delivers 24/7.

Out of the blue, he receives a call from Julie Fiske. It’s been decades since they’ve spoken, and he’s relieved to hear she’s healed from her brief, misguided first marriage: to him! She’s on the East Coast and wants David’s help organizing college plans for her 17-year old daughter Mandy.

David flies east, and he and Julie find themselves living under the same roof. They pick up where they left off thirty years ago – still best friends who can finish each other’s sentences.

Julie has issues of her own: her second husband has recently left her for a younger woman, and she’s desperate to hold onto her home (a crumbling, ocean-view 19th century manor on Boston’s North Shore) by buying him out with money she doesn’t have. As an art teacher, she tries to make ends meet by renting rooms on Airbnb. Her daughter, Mandy, is a troubled teen who is smarter than the other kids in school, but is distant and making bad choices.

The whole situation is great fodder for McCauley’s dazzling wit and turn of phrase. The novel is packed with one-liners. About some demanding guests: “[t]hey were probably in their thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way.” About wine connoisseurs: “incipient alcoholics with money.” A woman describing her rich husband: “Leonard doesn’t have friends. He has opportunities wearing socks.”

The characters are rich – even the secondary ones. To avoid the threat of scathing reviews from her guests, Julie hires an Airbnb consultant. She recommends some tricks of the trade: to save money on breakfast buffets, don’t cut up the fruit and, to discourage sex (walls are thin), add mountains of throw pillows and elaborate Victorian window treatments.

The novel is a breather from the big picture, heavy issues of the day: race, politics, immigration, etc. Its focus is on the fears and foibles of everyday domestic life: money, love, family and home.

Stephen McCauley lives in Boston and is an author of several novels, three of which have been adapted into film: one American and two French. “My Ex-Life” would translate well to the big screen.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 1. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 3 to discuss “My Ex-Life” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.