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'You Only Call When You're in Trouble' is a witty novel to get you through the winter

You Only Call When You're in Trouble, by Stephen McCauley
MacMillan
You Only Call When You're in Trouble, by Stephen McCauley

Champagne bubbles pop and vanish, but a good comic novel is a steady mood lifter, especially during these flat post-holiday weeks of the new year. Enter Stephen McCauley, whose novels have been brightening spirits since 1987.

That's when his debut novel, The Object of My Affection, was published and later made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. McCauley's new novel is You Only Call When You're in Trouble, and, like its seven predecessors, it offers readers not only the expansive gift of laughter but, also, a more expansive image of what family can be.

The trio at the center of this story consists of a flighty single mother named Dorothy, who's now in her 60s; her daughter, Cecily, a 30-something college professor, who's currently under investigation for alleged misconduct with a female student; and Tom, Dorothy's brother and Cecily's uncle, as well as her de-facto father.

An architect in his 60s, Tom has just been double dumped: A client has canceled a lucrative building project and Tom's longtime boyfriend has moved out. Though he fiercely loves his sister and niece, Tom is also realizing how very weary he is of being their emotional and financial pillar. He's always put himself second to their needs.

On the very first page of this highly designed story, we learn that Dorothy, ever the cash-strapped free spirit, is embarking on a risky new business venture: a massive "retreat center" in artsy Woodstock, N.Y.

Convinced that time is running out to make her mark, Dorothy has partnered up with the quintessential bully of a self-help guru — a woman named Fiona Snow whose book, The Nature of Success in Successful Natures, was a flickering bestseller back when Oprah still had her talk show.

Dorothy summons Tom and Cecily to the gala opening of the center where she also plans to finally disclose the long-hidden identity of Cecily's father. As in a Shakespearean comedy, mayhem and a flurry of un-maskings ensue, during which characters' true natures are exposed.

As a comic writer and novelist of manners, McCauley has not only been likened to the Bard, but to Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and to contemporaries like Tom Perrotta and Maria Semple. Let's throw in Oscar Wilde as well because there's an economy to McCauley's style that's reminiscent of Wilde's quick wit. For example, late in the novel, Tom finds himself applying for jobs in other architectural firms. We're told that:

Even in McCauley's earliest novels, however, his characters and their predicaments were never simply set-ups for clever one-liners. There's always been a psychological acuity to his work and, here, a deepened sense of looming mortality. Cecily, who rightly disapproves of her mother's partnership with Fiona Snow, sadly reflects that:

In its own sparkling way, You Only Call When You're in Trouble, is concerned with the question of endings, of what we leave behind — whether it be our work, our worst mistakes, our most loving-if-flawed relationships.

Personally, I didn't want to leave McCauley's voice and sensibility behind when I finished this novel. So, I did something I can't remember ever doing before: I searched online for an earlier novel of his called The Easy Way Out that I'd never read, bought it, and dove in. In January, any safe measures to keep one's mood and bubbles aloft are justified.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.