Here’s the thing about contemporary fiction: such works are often the soda of literature, bubbling and frothing with excitement for a short while before ultimately falling flat months (or short years) later when political digs and technology references have lost their relevance. Sometimes, though, I get lucky and read a piece of contemporary lit that isn’t just timely and charming, but also thought-provoking and re-read worthy.
My Ex-Life by author Stephen McCauley, unfortunately, falls into the former of the two categories.
30-second synopsis: Middle-aged Julie and her teenage daughter, Mandy, are scrambling to make ends meet in a haphazard (and possibly illegal?) Airbnb in a quaint coastal town in New England. Julie’s got a not-addicted pot problem and Mandy has a rather lackluster enthusiasm for school, work, and life in general. On the other side of the country, Julie’s ex-husband David is facing a mid-life crisis of his own: he’s just been dumped by his considerably-younger-and-thinner boyfriend . . . who is buying the home he rents out from underneath him. David and Julie reunite for a few weeks in the summer, seemingly so David can help sort out Julie’s problems; but the two quickly find that simple fixes and good intentions aren’t always enough to make things right.
Reviews on Goodreads for the newly-published novel seem to fall on two separate ends of the rating spectrum: there are those who love the work, who are absolutely convinced it is of the utmost relevance for this time and that the characters are vividly drawn and ultimately McCauley has done no wrong with this stunning piece of literature; and then, there are the disgruntled and defensive conservatives who have stumbled upon this title that is clearly not intended for them.
I’m falling somewhere between the two: I’m not convinced, by any stretch of the imagination, that this book will ever be a re-read for me (or even a book that I remember much from six months down the road); but I was also not put off by the numerous snarky jabs at Republican values and religious individuals, despite the fact that many of these jabs targeted people in my general demographic (I’m a moderate, white, middle-class Catholic from the Midwest). I didn’t take offense to McCauley’s caustic observations on non-Democrats because, well, to make the assumption that all of those zingers were meant to rankle me just seems rather smug and self-occupied, doesn’t it?
My Ex-Life was quick, if not a bit mind-numbing: there wasn’t a lot in this book that required deeper consideration or reflection. (Maybe if I were middle-aged, there’d be more of the latter?) In this sense, it was a perfect summer read — carefree, easy, and just significant enough to make me feel as though I hadn’t wasted my time. I enjoyed David’s character most, and was appreciative of the novel’s approach to themes of regret and reinvention.
I do have a few gripes that might align with some of the more disgruntled readers’ opinions, though. Primarily: the book felt like one long, drawn out generalization after another. This was my first McCauley book, so I’m not sure whether the author intentionally conflated the novel with hyper-cliched characters and over-generalized observations about cultural groups or if these not-so-subtle proclamations were the author’s beliefs subconsciously masked as “character development.” (I’m willing to bet he’s a smart man, so I’m guessing it was intentional — satirical?) I wasn’t offended by his snarky one-liners about Catholics and Midwesterners; really, I just became weary of how every single character seemed to fulfill some oversaturated stereotype and was somehow a representative for entire cultural or social groups. Also exhausting: every wealthy character was clearly a WASP with evil intentions; every teenage girl was obviously devoid of personal depth and purpose beyond staged selfies; every gay man was certainly abused by his straight friends as a flamboyant stylist and emotional support. The immediate assumptions made by characters — or McCauley? — just became tedious over the course of 300-some pages.
I really wanted to see more complexity to McCauley’s characters; sadly, I felt like the novel digressed too often into snarky zingers intended to wow readers with wit — and these moments ultimately took me “out” of the story and, in turn, out of the characters’ world.
Overall: 3 stars. This book will make for an ultimately engaging, light summer read; but don’t pick it up if you’re staunchly conservative or even mildly religious and take offense to alternative (read: critical) viewpoints.
Thanks to Flatiron Books for the advance copy. All opinions in this review are my own.