Best Book of the Year: NPR, Shelf Awareness
In prose filled with hilarious and heartbreakingly accurate one-liners, Stephen McCauley has written a novel that examines how we define home, family, and love. Be prepared to laugh, shed a few tears, and have thoughts of your own ex-life triggered.
David Hedges’s life is coming apart at the seams. His job helping San Francisco rich kids get into the colleges of their (parents’) choice is exasperating; his younger boyfriend has left him; and the beloved carriage house he rents is being sold. His solace is a Thai takeout joint that delivers 24/7.
The last person he expects to hear from is Julie Fiske. It’s been decades since they’ve spoken, and he’s relieved to hear she’s recovered from her brief, misguided first marriage. To him.
Julie definitely doesn’t have a problem with marijuana (she’s given it up completely, so it doesn’t matter if she gets stoned almost daily) and the Airbnb she’s running out of her seaside house north of Boston is neither shabby nor illegal. And she has two whole months to come up with the money to buy said house from her second husband before their divorce is finalized. She’d just like David’s help organizing college plans for her seventeen-year-old daughter.
That would be Mandy. To quote Barry Manilow, Oh Mandy. While she knows she’s smarter than most of the kids in her school, she can’t figure out why she’s making so many incredibly dumb and increasingly dangerous choices?
When David flies east, they find themselves living under the same roof (one David needs to repair). David and Julie pick up exactly where they left off thirty years agothey’re still best friends who can finish each other’s sentences. But there’s one broken bit between them that no amount of home renovations will fix.
“I didn't know how much I needed a laugh until I began reading Stephen McCauley's new novel, My Ex-Life. This is the kind of witty, sparkling, sharp novel for which the verb ‘chortle’ was invented.” Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
“McCauley fits neatly alongside Tom Perrotta and Maria Semple in the category of ‘Novelists You’d Most Like to Drive Across the Country With.’” The New York Times Book Review
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About the Author
Stephen McCauley is the author of six previous novels, including The Object of My Affection, True Enough, and Alternatives to Sex. Many have been national bestsellers, and three have been made into feature films. The New York Times Book Review dubbed McCauley “the secret love child of Edith Wharton and Woody Allen”, and he was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. His fiction, reviews, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, Vogue, and many other publications. He currently serves as Co-Director of Creative Writing at Brandeis University. He has several properties listed on Airbnb in Massachusetts and New York and owns a total of zero toss pillows.
Read an Excerpt
Julie touched the pocket of her white shirt. Yes, the joint was still there, and no, she wasn't going to smoke it. She'd given up pot, and thank god for that. Life was so much more clear and simple without it. Henry had told her he wanted to discuss something when he dropped off Mandy tonight, and since Henry rarely discussed anything — was, she finally saw, incapable of discussion in the ordinary sense of the word — she interpreted the comment as a threat and had spent the afternoon under a cloud of foreboding. She needed to be sharp for whatever was coming.
She took a seat on the steps at the back of the house, clutching a bag with half a dozen muffins in it, and waited for Henry's car to pull into the drive. The muffins were for Carol, the woman Henry had left her for. Naturally, Carol was younger. Julie knew only one man who'd betrayed his marriage for a woman older than his wife, and it was overstating it to say she knew Prince Charles.
A soft breeze was blowing up from the ocean, bringing with it the smell of salt and seaweed. From the steps where she was sitting, she could see the harbor and the shadowy lobster boats tugging on their moorings and the yellow lights starting to come on in the awful restaurants along the shore. It was funny how you could love a view, even while recognizing it as a cliché vista of the New England coastline. She'd been ambivalent about the town of Beauport itself at the start — so small, so provincial — but had overlooked all that because she loved (she loved!) the house. She eventually came to appreciate Beauport's obvious charms, although they were tinged with loneliness since Henry had left. Dumped her, but who was counting? It was important not to turn bitter.
At this point, it was hard to know how she felt about the marriage ending. She was too exhausted. They'd met almost twenty-two years ago, and while Julie had expected to spend the rest of her life with Henry, when she looked back with honesty and clarity — a rare and depressing combination — she saw that cracks had started to appear in the foundation about a decade earlier. These were hairline fractures she'd chosen to ignore: Henry's vague but persistent disapproval of her; his pervasive air of dissatisfaction; his decision to switch careers in his late forties to run a restaurant. Even his support of Mitt Romney had had an aura of aggression toward her, a how-do-you-like-that? quality she'd sensed but had been unable to label at the time.
Now they had a signed separation agreement and were inching toward the final act. The divorce was uncontested, they'd used a mediator, and so far, everyone was behaving like an adult. In Henry's case, a petulant, self-centered adult, but that made it emotionally easier to let go, even if she feared it might make it more complicated practically.
She knew that if she'd dragged in an antagonistic lawyer, she would have done better, but Henry was struggling financially, he was her daughter's father, and she'd always loathed people who exploited accidents and errors and alienated affections for profit. She was determined not to be one. It was one thing to hate someone for falling out of love with you, but another to attempt to turn it into an economic windfall. She'd been adamant about that in her divorce from David Hedges, against the advice of her mother. But there had been no property then, and there hadn't been a child. I'm sorry, David.
She was getting what she wanted most. Mandy would continue to live with her until she went to college — this crucial final year of high school when they could bond, with, hopefully, the cloud of unfinished marital business dispersed — and Julie would buy Henry out of the house. They'd agreed on a closing date in the middle of August. With the help of an ultra-organized friend at Crawford School, she'd actually sent in the paperwork to apply for the mortgage. The value of the house had more than doubled since they'd bought it, but years earlier, she'd paid off the joint mortgage they'd had with the money she'd inherited from her mother. What she now owed Henry — essentially, one quarter of the value quoted by a real estate agent — was daunting but not prohibitive.
She had confidence it would all work out. Shallow confidence, admittedly. It was similar to her sureness that she understood the specifics of the civil war in Syria — yes, but one pointed question and it all unraveled.
She'd been warned by friends who'd been through divorce that as the summer wearied on, she should expect Henry to grow less reasonable. Hopefully, tonight was not the beginning of this phase. He'd recently discovered that she'd started renting out rooms through Airbnb, despite her efforts at hiding it from him, so she had to be on best behavior. It was June 6; far from wearying on, the summer technically had not yet begun.
She pulled out the joint. Anxiously waiting for Henry to berate her wasn't doing anyone any good, and since she'd stopped smoking pot, it mattered less if she occasionally got stoned. Her slips were meaningless, parenthetical. Rain was predicted for tomorrow, so why not enjoy the lovely evening in a calm frame of mind? Weather was a useful excuse for so many things in life. Like air, there was always some of it, even if the quality varied from day to day. She lit and inhaled, and warmth flowed over her. The blue lights strung along the wharf that jutted into the harbor below sparkled and she could hear the faint, dreamy sounds of a piano from somewhere in the neighborhood, one of those thin, aimless, New Age chord progressions that the magic of marijuana transformed into Chopin. It was a shame pot did that thing to your memory, because everything else it did was so pleasant.
What she liked least about Carol was that she was essentially sympathetic. It would have been so much easier if Henry had left her for someone loathsome. Carol was small and anxious to please. She'd been so silently apologetic about their situation, Julie had wanted to hug her and tell her it was fine, even though, of course, it wasn't. There were lots of things Julie wanted to tell Carol: pink was not her color (pink was not anyone's color); the ponytail stuck through the baseball cap did not suit her; most of all, she was too good for Henry. Even Julie had probably been too good for Henry, but it had taken a while to realize that and some days, she still wasn't sure.
Naturally, if she said any of that, it would come out wrong, so instead she'd started sending small, inconsequential gifts back with Henry when he came around to pick up or drop off Mandy. Two weeks ago, it had been a jar of fig jam she'd picked up at a farmers' market. Mandy had reported that Carol liked figs, although she'd made it sound — as so much of what Mandy said these days sounded — like an insult. "She eats figs."
She took another hit of pot and heard someone calling her name. "Julie? Are you home?" Probably Tracy, the woman who'd arrived with her husband the night before. They were from ... well, somewhere anyway, and were in Beauport for a wedding.
"Be right there," Julie called.
She tamped out the joint and was about to toss it into the trash when she thought better of it and slipped it into a fake rock she'd bought for extra keys (even though she never locked the doors) and kept tucked against the foundation. Knowing it was there would help her not smoke it.
As soon as she entered the house, she felt more at ease. She'd fallen in love with the place as soon as she saw it, a rambling nineteenth-century residence that allegedly had been built by a sea captain and added onto over the years with the exuberant eccentricity that appealed to her aesthetic. Every house in town claimed a connection to a sea captain, but this house was plopped on top of a hill, cherry-on-a- cupcake style, and was impressive enough to make the claim plausible. The woodwork, the stained glass panels, the graceful curve of the staircase, the built-in cabinets — so cozy and ship-like — the heavy porcelain doorknobs, and the wavy, blistered windowpanes that had survived blizzards and hurricanes and the baseballs and bad tempers of generations of residents. There were far too many rooms, a selling point when they'd bought it in the early, optimistic days of their marriage, a burden as time went on, and — as of three months ago when a colleague at school had persuaded her to rent rooms online because "everyone" was doing it — the source of an essential secondary-income stream. Once everything was settled, it would be the supplement she needed to cover bills and a few luxury items like — oh, food, for example.
When people showed an appreciation for the house as they checked in, she immediately liked them. One such person was Raymond Cross, the musician who'd checked in in April. But then, there had been so many things she'd liked about Raymond, it was hard to know where to begin. And best not to begin at all since she had no reason to believe she'd see him again. No matter how much she'd like to.
She found Tracy in the living room, lifting the seat cushion of a chair. Was she looking for quarters?
"Everything all right?" Julie asked.
Tracy turned, neither startled nor embarrassed. "I was looking to see if the other side was less stained. I guess you might as well leave it like this." She smiled, as if she'd complimented Julie's taste, showing off dazzling teeth, which, in Julie's heightened condition, reminded her of subway tiles. Nice hair, though. Blond, shampoo-commercial shiny, and snipped at the jawline in a way that suggested she was shopping for an identity at the hair salon.
"It's mostly family that uses the living room anyway," Julie hinted.
"I can see why. There's not enough light in here to read or do much of anything." Tracy had a cheerful voice that was completely out of sync with her comments, no doubt a sign of emotional disconnect. "Please," Tracy gestured. "Take a seat, won't you?"
Julie tried not to look insulted. After all, it was still her house.
"I'm fine standing," Julie said.
Tracy looked around the room, her eyes melting with empathy. "It is hard to find a place to sit with all this furniture you've got crammed in here, isn't it? How about we sit on this old sofa thing?"
The furniture in question was a 1950s teak daybed Julie had picked up for seventy-five dollars at a flea market in Rowley. Yes, it could stand to be reupholstered, but even in its current state she could easily get five hundred from a dealer she knew in Cambridge. And why sofa thing?
"I don't want to be rude, Tracy, but I'm waiting for my daughter to get dropped off. Her father and I have something important to discuss."
"Believe me," she said, "I won't take up more than a minute. I can see you're completely overwhelmed.'"
When Tracy and her husband got out of their spotless car wheeling identical black suitcases and wearing what appeared to be pressed jeans, Julie's eye had twitched. When everything looks perfectly right about a person, there's usually something significantly wrong. They were probably in their early thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way. They'd stopped Julie this morning and asked if she knew a good place to run, preferably "a nice eleven-mile loop." Who ran that much, and why such an annoyingly random yet specific number?
"What did you want to talk about?" Julie asked, and then, fearing her tone might have been too harsh, she sat beside Tracy on the daybed.
"Isn't that more comfortable?" Tracy asked. She actually touched Julie's knee. "Did you read my profile when I made the booking?"
"I didn't study it closely." The line between understatement and lie was usefully blurry.
"That's all right. Jerry and I are professional personal organizers. We're the ones who coined the term 'messology.'"
"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with it," Julie said. She hated that everything had to be broken down into categories with cute labels, no doubt, in this case, as part of a branding scheme. A brand seemed to be more valuable than an actual talent these days, although the two things were connected somehow. It was true that given Tracy's spotless appearance and unflappable cheer, it was easier to think of her as a brand than as a person. Maybe it was the pot, but in this light, she did look like one of those bobble-headed dolls with her round eyes and her perfect hairdo.
"I'd be happy to work with you on one corner of a room in exchange for a free night. We've done some amazing work with people like you."
This was an accusation, one made in the superior tones of a religious fanatic, but it's always compelling to have someone tell you about yourself, even when it's something you'd rather not hear. "People like me?" Julie asked. "I'm not sure I follow you."
"I know it looks normal to you, but from where I sit, the signs are clear. We've developed a scale of the four stages of pre-hoarding. We call it the ABCD Scale. Aggressive Acquirer, Binge Buyer, Compulsive Collector, and Deluged Debtor. Jerry and I were discussing you in bed last night, and we think you're only at A, but what comes after A, Julie?"
A car pulled into the driveway. She did not need Henry to walk in on this conversation.
"I'm going to assume that's a rhetorical question," she said.
Tracy put her manicured hand on Julie's knee again. "I know it's tempting to get defensive, but is it worth it? When we see patients get defensive about their Aggressive Acquiring, we worry they're about to enter the next level."
Julie stood, trying to control her anger. She wanted to remind Tracy that she wasn't a patient and that there was no way she and her husband could insult their way into a free night. But remembering the threat of negative online reviews, she said, "I really appreciate your offer. It's so considerate, I'll gladly give you a fifty-dollar credit for your next stay." As she was leaving the room, she turned and said, "And it's a daybed, Tracy. A Danish modern daybed, not a sofa thing."
Henry was standing on the gravel driveway, surveying the back of the house disapprovingly. Seersucker shorts. Ridiculous at his age, but attractive on his newly defined thighs. Carol had issues with exercise that she was obviously passing on to Henry. Despite a desire to burst into tears — she was not a hoarder, barely a slob, just busy — Julie gave her most merry wave. Hopefully not one of those I'm-stoned-so-everything's-rosy waves. She headed down the steps carefully as Mandy emerged from the car with a thud, as if she'd dropped from a wall, and Opal bounded out after her. Opal ran over to Julie and began leaping up, at least to the extent that she could with her one hind leg. She growled in frustration, poor thing, and then raced around the yard frantically, barking. Home, home, home, I'm home.
With the joyless resignation that defined so many of her actions these days, Mandy lumbered to the trunk and pulled out her duffel bag.
"I thought you were going to have something done about those gutters," Henry said.
Julie looked back at the house. Henry had tossed out orders last time she'd talked with him. Naturally, she'd forgotten.
"I'm working on it," Julie said.
Mandy clomped over to Julie and planted a kiss on her cheek. A crumb tossed in her direction, but such a welcome one. "Nice perfume, Mom," she whispered.
It was getting harder to tell herself that Mandy knew nothing about her pot habit since, in the past year, it seemed as if Mandy knew more about most things while caring less about everything. Another reason to be glad she'd stopped smoking.
As soon as Mandy was inside, Julie tried to grab the advantage. She presented the oily bag to Henry. "A little something for Carol," she said. "Carrot muffins. I know she's big on vegetables."
He held up his hands as if she'd pointed a gun at him. "That's one of the things we need to talk about," he said. "No more gifts. It makes her feel terrible you're being so nice to her."
"Would it help if I included a nasty note?"
"You know what you're doing, so let's cut the comedy act."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Ex-Life"
Copyright © 2018 Stephen McCauley.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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