No one writes about close friendships and unconventional domestic arrangements between gay men and straight women with as much charm and flair as Stephen McCauley. When his first novel, The Object of My Affection, was published 31 years ago, same-sex marriage was somewhere over the rainbow, but his characters, gay and straight, banded together to create a new-fangled family. Now, five years after the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, a character in My Ex-Life, McCauley's delightful seventh novel, quips, "I wish they'd legalize friendship unions."
McCauley's social comedies have consistently demonstrated what's known in publishing as "crossover appeal" — they're charmers without borders. Whether you're gay or straight, male or female, young or old, his big themes are the central importance of love and affection and the joy of sex and soul mates, wherever you find them.
In Alternatives to Sex, McCauley made hay by drawing connections between obsessions with real estate and online sex. His most recent novel, Insignificant Others, wittily explored the question of whether an affair on the side of a serious relationship is ever actually insignificant. And with My Ex-Life, a heartwarming comedy of manners about second chances and starting afresh, he has pretty much outdone himself.
We meet his latest middle-aged protagonist, David Hedges, during a "season of aggrieved discontent." He's a San Francisco-based independent college counselor whose partner of five years has recently left him for another, richer man. More unsettling, the impossibly wonderful, affordable carriage house he's been renting for years is about to be sold out from under him. When his ex-wife, Julie Fiske, calls out of the blue from Massachusetts hoping he can help guide her unfocused daughter Mandy through the college application process, it sets McCauley's irresistible doozy of a plot in motion.
The scenario gives McCauley plenty of material to play with. For starters, there's David's rich clients, parents who invariably describe their children as gifted and are determined to get them into prestigious colleges, regardless of their mediocre grades. McCauley has a field day with the "editorial challenges" posed by barely literate application essays, the vast majority of which are about grandparents or cancer. (One kid writes, understandably, that his educational goal is "to move away from my parents.")
Then there's Julie's crumbling, ocean-view 19th century manse on Boston's North Shore, which a realtor describes as "somewhere on the early end of the Grey Gardens trajectory." Julie's second husband has recently left her for a younger woman, and she's desperate to hold onto her home by buying him out with money she doesn't have. An art teacher, she tries to make ends meet by renting rooms on Airbnb. Her guests, forever threatening to post scathing reviews online, provide plenty of satirical fodder, as does an Airbnb consultant who recommends tricks of the trade to save money on breakfast buffets (don't cut up the fruit) and discourage sex (mountains of throw pillows and elaborate Victorian window treatments).
Enter David, who's determined to help Julie save her home and help her smart but lost daughter find her way. But there are numerous hurdles, including Mandy's secret, very creepy summer job, and some unfinished business between Julie and David from their brief, misguided marriage 30 years earlier.
As always, McCauley fires off witticisms like a tennis ace practicing serves. About some demanding guests: "They were probably in their thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way." About wine connoisseurs: "incipient alcoholics with money." A woman describing her rich husband: "Leonard doesn't have friends. He has opportunities wearing socks."
McCauley is a master of the charm offensive — social criticism (from a decidedly liberal point of view) sweetened with wit. Some one-liners, like Julie's attitude toward extortionate divorce settlements, are positively Wildean, although underneath there's a serious message about scruples: "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."
In the vein of inveterate beguilers like Laurie Colwin, Elinor Lipman, and Maria Semple, McCauley is warm but snappy, light but smart — and just plain enjoyable. His purview is not the big issues like race, intolerance, and poverty, but life's hiccups and fumbles. He understands the lure of cozy domesticity — and the absurdity of too many throw pillows. And once again, in My Ex-Life, McCauley never lets you forget that love truly is a many-splendored, not easily categorizable thing.