My Ex-Life is a quiet novel about ordinary people dealing with the ordinary upsets of life in late middle age. David and Julie were married briefly when they were young. Now in their fifties, David’s younger boyfriend has just left him and Julie is in the process of divorcing her second husband. David decides to fly from San Fransisco to visit her on the north shore of Massachusetts, on the pretense of helping Julie’s teenage daughter, Mandy, with college prep. The story that unfolds, alternating between David, Julie and Mandy’s POV, is about all the different ways people define home and family, and how those definitions change over time.
I enjoyed this book while I was reading it. I found the characters endearing and relatable. They very much felt like people I might run into on the street. The whole novel felt true to life, from the depictions of small town coastal Massachusetts to the San Francisco real estate market to the cutthroat and damaging world of high school social media. It was a quick read, and I found myself rooting for everyone involved, laughing out loud, and, overall, generally entertained.
But it wasn’t anything special. It was one of those books that fell somewhere on the line between lighthearted comedy and serious family drama. But it didn’t quite manage to be either of those things. Despite enjoying it, the whole thing felt as if it took place on the surface. The interesting thing is that there was, actually, quite a lot at stake for all of these characters, especially Mandy. But the novel had this meandering, comedic feel that, in some ways, undermined the seriousness of some of things that were going on. The characters felt real, but they also felt a little flimsy. I sensed their emotional depth, but it didn’t always translate on the page.
Perhaps some of my feelings about this novel stem from the fact that I read it immediately following Less, a book I absolutely adored. Both are about gay men in their fifties dealing with loss, regret, aging, and the redefining of love and home. Less was both hilarious and heartfelt–it succeeded both as a brilliant romantic comedy and as a serious book with something profound to say about human relationships. My Ex-Life, for me, didn’t quite succeed on either level. It did explore some interesting themes around home and family–what it means to call a place home, the ways that our ideas about home change over time, the different kinds of relationships that end up mattering as we age. But I didn’t feel those things in my gut, the way Less made me feel them. My Ex-Life was enjoyable, but it didn’t leave me with much.
I’ve read most of Stephen McCauley’s work. As a teenager and in my early twenties, when I wasn’t as good at finding books with queer characters as I am now, I’d latch on to any author who wrote about queer folks and devour everything they wrote. Stephen McCauley was one of those authors. So I have a fondness for him, and for his books, all of which I’ve enjoyed. My Ex-Life is no exception. But with a much bigger pool of queer literature to draw from now, this novel didn’t grab me the way it might have when I was a queer-character starved young adult.
My favorite McCauley book remains his first, Object of My Affection, and, while I enjoyed his newest, I’d still recommend that one over any of his others.