REVIEW: You Only Call When You’re in Trouble by Stephen McCauley

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Is it ever okay to stop caring for others and start living for yourself?

After a lifetime of taking care of his impossible but irresistible sister and his cherished niece, Tom is ready to put himself first. An architect specializing in tiny houses, he finally has an opportunity to build his masterpiece—“his last shot at leaving a footprint on the dying planet.” Assuming, that is, he can stick to his resolution to keep the demands of his needy family at bay.

Naturally, that’s when his phone rings. His niece, Cecily—the real love of Tom’s life, as his boyfriend reminded him when moving out—is embroiled in a Title IX investigation at the college where she teaches that threatens her career and relationship. And after decades of lying, his sister wants him to help her tell Cecily the real identity of her father.

Tom does what he’s always done—answers the call. Thus begins a journey that will change everyone’s life and demonstrate the beauty or dysfunction (or both?) of the ties that bind families together and sometimes strangle them.

Dear Mr. McCauley,

This turned out to be not at all what I expected. The blurb led me to believe that this would be a madcap dramedy. Yes it had moments of humor and drama but it is more a quiet look into a family life that is somewhat dysfunctional but loving for all that.

I think most people have got someone in their family who has to be bailed out of situations while everyone else looks on and either shakes their heads or rolls their eyes. For architect Tom, this is his impulsive, impetuous younger sister Dorothy. Dorothy flows through life never paying any attention to planning ahead or worrying about tomorrow. Everything will work out and, thanks to Tom bailing her out with money, her life pretty much has. Tom also looks after Dorothy’s daughter Cecily who has the self possession and quiet reserve of someone who has lived with chaos all her life.

But now Tom is facing losing his job due to a wealthy, balky client (who also happens to be a long time friend of Dorothy’s) and her husband. Tom has also lost his long time lover because of always putting Cecily first over Alan. Cecily is being investigated for a Title IX infraction with a female student in whom Cecily saw a bit of herself. Cecily is also worried about how her boyfriend’s mother is (not subtly) trying to ease Cecily out of a relationship with Santosh. And flighty Dorothy is desperately trying to finally have a successful venture in her life in order to pass on a legacy to Cecily and also spill the beans as to who Cecily’s father is. Will everyone’s life fall apart, or finally come together?

Yeah so I was expecting more of Tom finally cutting the umbilical cord with his breezy free spirit sister. I never thought he’d push Cecily out of his life, though. But the book is more about how we handle dysfunction, long time life patterns, and family. I settled into it and just let it take me away like a Netflix drama.

Most of the characters have some flaws or are (I suspect intentionally) made to be a bit unlikeable. Tom might silently grumble about how often and for how long he’s had to be the responsible person in his family and how much this has cost him both financially and in his relationships. Still we know that when someone calls needing advice or help, he will do what he can. Yet he also has trouble letting Alan go and ends up doing a few things that, even as he’s thinking about doing them, he knows are bad ideas.

Cecily thought she was on her way up in her academic career with a published book, TV guest appearances, and a seminar that had so much demand that it was expanded into a lecture. But her bright future might implode because she tried to help a talented student and didn’t realize the situation was too far out of control. Instead of confronting Santosh’s mother and pushing back there, Cecily has remained too passive – afraid that asserting herself will cause her to lose this man she’s crazy in love with.

Then Dorothy has landed herself in a situation she wants to work out and working with an author who aggressively micromanages their business endeavor then lets Some News out of the bag. And Dorothy refuses to face the reality of something in her life because she thinks doing what she’s told to in this instance would be a sign of weakness. Dorothy thinks managing her life means simply waving away bad news.

I have to admit that many of the characters in the book are rather two dimensional and could have used some filling out. There’s a lot of telling instead of showing. In the end, the big events of two of the major characters are rather unfinished. And yet I was left feeling that the book is mainly about choices and family rather than the end result of the plot points. Life is sticky and messy, family will sometimes drive you nuts, and making your way through the trials of relationships and jobs can be exasperating but that’s what living is about. I wanted to keep reading and clocked roughly 150 pages a day. I was a little astonished at one person’s actions (and what inspired them) but quietly pleased that another character finally spoke up and insisted on being heard. Many of the characters are also facing and dealing with getting older which I, as a slightly older person, appreciated seeing handled with humor and love. B-

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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