You Only Call When You’re in Trouble

At a certain point in most long-term relationships, it’s expected that public displays of affection will be supplanted by public displays of annoyance. After six or more years, affection in public takes on the flavor of protesting too much and reeks of the uniquely sad kindness an unfaithful spouse showers on the person he’s betraying.

from You Only Call When You’re in Trouble

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company


A sly, wry take on contemporary society

Dorothy, a geriatric flower child who never outgrew Woodstock, has bought a huge building in that fabled village and is planning a gala to announce her latest in a string of ill-conceived and costly business ventures.

Her brother, Tom, is understandably nervous since he’s always been the one to bail her out. But Tom has his own problems: a once well-paid, highly-regarded architect now in his sixties, he’s being surpassed by younger, more daring colleagues (“His younger colleagues called him ‘old school’ in a respectful, admiring way that indicated they considered him irrelevant.”) Plus, his long-time lover has just moved out. This is really not a good time for one of Dorothy’s self-induced crises.

Dorothy also desires her one adult child to attend the gala, promising to reveal a dark, long-kept secret. This is not a good time for Cecily either, a college instructor being investigated for misconduct with a student—the student actually kissed Cecily and then reported it, but Cecily’s lips were admittedly involved.

If this sounds like a rejected pilot for a day-time soap, it kind of is. The plot never really thickens; the characters don’t develop so much as tootle along as they always have; things simply happen as life is wont to do. It’s all complicated, and more than a little silly.

The enjoyment comes in the witty tone and wry observations peppered throughout the pages. Stephen McCauley, bestselling author of My Ex-Life and The Object of My Affection, offers droll and amusing takes on American society in the early 21st century, much as Jane Austen did of hers in the early 19th.

“Like all tourist towns Tom knew, (Woodstock) seemed both immensely appealing and utterly ridiculous.” His rich clients are “the epitome of the unappealing, well-heeled, aging white couple that Americans claim to loathe while secretly aspiring to become.” Dorothy surrounds herself with aging gurus and motivational speakers, where “every self-help guru’s job is to make you feel bad about yourself so you’ll pay her to make you feel better.”

Reading this, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s lament in Much Ado About Nothing: “O! what men dare do! / What men may do! / What men daily do, / Not knowing what they do.”

And women, too. A quick, light read, You Only Call will draw chuckles while the reader also cringes at the truth of McCauley’s observations, of rather silly people steeped in their messy lives, creating unnecessary anxiety, tension, and problems wherever they go. Life seems messy enough without needing any help.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15, 2024.) Reprinted with permission.