Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: "My Ex-Life" by Stephen McCauley

In 1987, I read Stephen McCauley's The Object of My Affection. I fell head over heels in love with that book about the often-blurred lines between love and friendship, and how we sometimes confuse security for happiness. I've read it a number of times since then, and it is easily one of my favorite books. (The less said about the film adaptation with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd the better.)

Through the years, I have read all of McCauley's other books, and he continues to be one of my favorite writers. I love the way his characters never quite have it all together (who does, really), and I so enjoy his commentary on the state of modern relationships, be they romantic, platonic, familial, or all of the above. He is, however, one of those authors who makes me wait quite a long time between books—his last book, Insignificant Others, was written eight years ago, but he generally lets four or five years elapse between books.

Needless to say, I was well overdue for a McCauley fix, and happily, his newest book, My Ex-Life provided a terrific remedy.

David Hedges' life is in a bit of a tailspin. His partner, Soren, has left him for an older, wealthier man, his beautiful rental home in San Francisco is being put up for sale (and he most definitely cannot afford to buy it), and he's gained more than a few pounds recently. And how did he wind up in his 50s?

The last thing David was expecting was to hear from Julie Fiske, one of his oldest and dearest friends—who also happens to be his ex-wife.

"He and Julie had a history, albeit an ancient and complicated one. They hadn't seen each other in almost thirty years, hadn't spoken in more than twenty, and David assumed that their story, like a few other things in his life—his desire to visit Petra; his vow to study piano; his sexual relevance—had ended. This didn't diminish her importance to him. His memories of her lingered, faded by the years in flattering ways."

Life has been a mess for Julie, too. She is in the midst of her second divorce, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband wants to sell their home (which Julie has been operating as a not-too-successful Airbnb property) right out from under her. Julie isn't sure where she can find the money to buy the house herself, although the thought of having to leave the seaside town outside Boston is utterly unappealing. Plus, she may have a little bit of a problem with marijuana.

Julie and David reunite under the request that David, whose job entails helping high school kids pull together their college applications and get into the school of their (parents') choice, help Julie's daughter Mandy with the same task. Mandy doesn't think she's much of a catch for a college, and has more than enough problems with her self-worth to worry about SAT scores and essays. But she knows her mother is in a downward spiral, so she agrees to work with David.

When David agrees to visit Julie, he does so in an attempt to rescue her from her current situation, not to mention escape the current craziness in his own life. It doesn't take long before they've slipped into the comforting familiarity of their relationship, albeit with a more mature (and realistic) eye. But there are some secrets which haven't been revealed in 30+ years, secrets which could damage their relationship—and their view of the path their lives took, not to mention people with designs on hurting all three of them.

Once again, McCauley brings his signature wit, candor, and emotion to a story of two people with a rich and complex shared history. While you've seen characters like Julie, David, and Mandy before, McCauley draws you in and makes you care about them and the mistakes they're making, even if you can predict what might happen. There is humor, frustration, hurt, poignancy, and reminiscences, as well as plenty of instances in which the characters wonder if what they remember is accurate or viewed through the happy haze of reunion.

My Ex-Life is a story about the truths and lies we tell ourselves and others, and how the strength to survive is often within ourselves, but it takes a good push from someone else to find it. It's also a story about friendship, love, and secrets, and how it's still possible to have the first two once you've worked through the third.

I remain a huge fan of Stephen McCauley, and I'd encourage you to read his books. I only hope, if he sees this review, he considers not making me wait another eight years for his next book? (Pretty please? I can type it for you if that would help.)

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