My Ex-Life
Stephen McCauley
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My Ex-Life
Stephen McCauley
Flatiron Books
336 pages
May 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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McCauley is a chronicler of a certain type of middle-class American ennui and anxiety. He focuses on the angst and passions of people in everyday American suburbs, and like Tom Perrotta and the great John Updike, often paints a sexually frank account of middle-class people experiencing different levels of loneliness and alienation. In My Ex-Life, McCauley's heroine, Julie Frisk, must look beyond the confines of a marriage she always assumed would last. In order to make ends meet, Julie has been renting out rooms in her rambling house on the coastline of Beauport, New England. Her flourishing desire to be newly independent places her in conflict with the harsh realities of family life. Her husband, Henry, is urging her sell; they have signed a separation agreement and are inching towards the final act.

Julie has a shallow confidence that things will all work out. She wants her teenage daughter, Mandy, to continue to live with her until she goes to college. Into this cloud of unfinished business comes ex-husband David Hedge, who has just split from his partner of five years. He currently lives in a rent-controlled San Francisco apartment, but his realtor friend Renata tells him that his landlady has been talking with brokers. Things get complicated when Julie calls. She confesses about her failed marriage to Henry and how Mandy's grades are holding steady somewhere in the "mediocre range." David has fond memories of Julie; she has the misfortune of being talented and capable in many areas "without being expert in any of them."

Buoyed along by regret for missed opportunities that will never be presented to him again, and with an agreement to help Mandy with her college applications, David departs for a ten -day break in in Beauport. David falls in love at once with this charming miniaturized village. Thoughts of Julie fill him with calm and belonging in this landscape where even steps to Julie's future clearly involve a lot of carpentry. They can never be lovers again, of course, yet a ghost "of what had been" between them hovers somewhere in the room. There are other ghosts, too, and Julie worries about having the discussion with him, the "one big unfished piece of business her life."

McCauley writes a slow burning, deeply charming book. How well do we know our loved ones? Where does our happiness come from? How do we deal with the loss of a loved one? How can we reconcile the past? Mandy expects more of an ally in David, someone who treats her like an equal. Over the next two days, Mandy pleads with David that she's too busy with her job and too tired in the evenings to focus on college applications. Julie smokes dope every chance she can to keep herself from being swallowed up by her anxiety. She misses companionship and sex, but she's not really sure what she's looking for. She feels attraction to the new people in her life--her glamourous neighbor with the aura of an Italian movie star, and middle-aged Raymond Cross, who stayed with her for a time.

As David sets about cleaning out Julie's house, he sees his own life as a series of "pot buys." As he sifts through the detritus of Julie's past, he's transported back to the living room of the sprawling apartment he and Julie shared in New York. Suddenly he's calling Renata, telling her he needs to be out of San Francisco longer than he first thought. It's a big help to Julie. If his place is being sold, he's better off looking for somewhere else to live anyway. David feels strangely detached from the City by the Bay, as if a wire connecting him to the West Coast "had been snipped." The longer David stays in Beauport, the more likely it as that "things would come up."

From twenty-something Craig, a sleazy provocateur who sees Mandy the way "no one else does," the person she'd always felt she was inside "but never got credit for," to Henry's attempts to sell to a rich neighbor so that he can establish his restaurant business, to David's "situation" that seemed so dire back in San Francisco but looks relatively simple from this new vantage point, McCauley delivers a painfully accurate portrayal of disappointment and disenchantment that so many of these characters feel in the daily grinds of their lives. Their almost obsessive pursuits to capture a fleeting bit of what they think might bring them happiness makes the novel both tender and funny.

McCauley has the rare gift of the 19th-century prose stylist when it comes to depicting the tragi-comic predicaments of ordinary people. He also has a sharp sociologist's eye as he carefully maneuvers through David, Julie and Mandy's various personal dramas. Wrapping up his characters in the sad ribbons of love, the author delivers a fitting tribute to a man and a woman trying to cope with the challenges and transitions of middle age and of a teenager whose desires and hang-ups are subtler and more surprising than they at first seem.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2018

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