My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley

36643511Fiction – Kindle edition. Flatiron Books, 2018. 336 pgs. Purchased.

Twenty years after their marriage ended, David Hedges and Julie Fiske are living on opposite sides of the United States. Julie is going through her second divorce; her husband, Henry, is demanding Julie come up with the money to buy him out of their rambling Victorian along the coast north of Boston. He is also insisting their daughter, Mandy, come up with plan for college, or he’s going to push for primary custody of the seventeen-year-old.

Mandy, who was recently reminded of her mother’s first husband, announces that Julie has already reached out to David for assistance. David, a gay man living in San Francisco, works as a college counselor, advising the city’s elite on college applications and editing their children’s essays. Julie hasn’t talked to David in years, but Mandy’s announcement forces her hand and David ends up on the next flight to Boston.

The trip is an escape for David, too. His long-term partner has left him, and his closest friend has brokered the sale of his rented apartment right out from under him. To David’s mind, the trip offers him the opportunity to ignore his own problems and reconnect with the woman he once considered his closest friend.

My book club selected this book because our leader for the month, Liz, heard the book described as “snappy” and “enjoyable” on NPR. I would agree with those adjectives for roughly the first third of the novel. The quirky dynamics between the characters made for a light yet enjoyable read.

Until, that is, McCauley decided to add darker elements to the story, including a twenty-something man grooming Mandy for sexual exploitation. While the conclusion of the novel is fairly strong, this very heavy topic felt out of step with tone and focus of the rest of the novel.

The random littering of criticisms against American conservatives and Republican policy in the story also felt out of step with the tone of the book. It felt like McCauley heard a piece of news while writing his book, dropped a diatribe against it into the story, and then moved on without second thought.

I don’t necessarily disagree with his reactions, but their inclusion also felt out of step with the tone of the book. My anger would suddenly spike, turning me either against the characters or, worse, pulling me out of the story. Not exactly the light, snappy read I was expecting.

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