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‘My Ex-Life:’ Professor McCauley’s smart, witty new novel

Stephen McCauley, co-director of the Creative Writing Program, is not only a professor of short fiction workshops, but a successful novelist. McCauley held a variety of jobs before focusing on writing full-time (his website lists travel agent and yoga instructor, among others). His latest book, “My Ex-Life,” is a witty and poignant look at how the past creeps up on you when you least expect it––and maybe when you need it most.

Without major spoilers, here’s the premise: David Hedges’ life has unexpectedly reached a standstill. His boyfriend just broke up with him, the house he rents is being sold into San Francisco’s cutthroat real estate market and he spends his days helping rich high school kids bolster their college applications and apply to their parents’ alma maters. Out of this chaos comes a surprise phone call: his ex-wife Julie, who he married decades ago before coming out. Julie lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her teenage daughter, Mandy, and claims she’s reconnecting with David because she needs his help with Mandy’s college applications. But her life has also been slowly unraveling; she’s getting divorced (for the second time) and struggling to raise the money to buy out her husband from their massive Victorian home in Beauport, the perfectly-unoriginally-named coastal town where the novel takes place.

It seems that David and Julie are reconnecting at a time in their lives when they most need an old friend and, luckily, the years have not dampened their affection and ease with each other. David heads to the East Coast to help Julie, moving into a small room in the Victorian that she’s been listing on Airbnb for extra cash, and in helping her and Mandy, he tries to find a renewed direction in his own life.

The novel also offers a vivid, if cliche, look at being a teenager who’s growing up in the digital age. Julie’s daughter Mandy winds up being humiliated on social media by popular girls in her grade, a familiar storyline that’s freshly told with Mandy’s anxieties. She has a job at a laughable tourist shop named Beachy Keen but, after being fired, starts working with a sketchy older man named Craig, whose computer business is a front for online porn. Her desire to be more mature and feel validated by the men she talks to online is heartrendingly countered by her earnest desire to make her mother proud, and her storyline is especially compelling alongside the crumbling lives of the adults around her.

As with any good novel, the reader is transported into the world of the characters, from David’s OCD to Julie’s hard-to-kick pot habit. What it perhaps lacks in relatability, it makes up for in believable characters. These characters are flawed and, because of this, they seem real and like you could run into and gossip about them. David and Julie are joined by a memorable cast: Renata, the high-powered realtor with a thing for Italian flight attendants; Kenneth, posh store owner; and Carol, the fitness-obsessed woman Julie’s husband is leaving her for and “who could stand to eat a cupcake once or twice a year.”

One of the most enjoyable things about the novel is McCauley’s tone. He is able to infuse a mix of humor and earnestness in the narrative, with sharp observations laced with comedic effect. It’s full of quips from current politics to climate change, with scathingingly accurate descriptions of things that we all judge, even if we wouldn’t admit to it. For instance, “crafting” is described as “an awkward word that meant you took a lot of ugly scraps and used a glue gun to transform them into something equally ugly but wearable.” Wry asides are often given that due to rising sea levels, Beauport will soon sink underwater.

“My Ex-Life” is a story about how a resurfacing of the past is not as bad as it may seem, especially when you start to feel stranded by the people around you. The Airbnb plotline emphasizes this; Julie and Mandy are literally surrounded by strangers in their home. It is touching that David, a vestige of a past life—an ex-life—becomes the glue holding Julie and Mandy together. It’s a hopeful take on exes, but more so on growth and rebuilding after loss.

I love that the relationship I’m rooting for most is not a romantic one—it’s the friendship between David and Julie. I care less about their various romantic interests and flings throughout the novel and more about their friendship being firmly rekindled; I don’t want David to move back to his lackluster life in San Francisco, but for him and Julie to become the Airbnb Superhosts of the North Shore.

“My Ex-Life” has met widely positive reviews and was even featured on an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” It’s a light but compelling read and, luckily, you can check out a copy from the Brandeis library.

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