“You Only Call When You’re in Trouble”: Stephen McCauley’s sparkling tale of laughter and revelations

In Stephen McCauley’s latest novel, You Only Call When You’re in Trouble, the effervescent charm that marked his debut in 1987 remains undiminished, according to an npr.org review by Maureen Corrigan. This time, the review states, McCauley weaves a tale around Dorothy, a spirited single mother in her 60s, her daughter Cecily, a 30-something college professor entangled in a professional scandal, and Tom, Dorothy’s brother and de-facto father to Cecily.

As the central trio grapples with their own upheavals, a daring business venture takes centre stage — Dorothy’s ambitious “retreat centre” in Woodstock, N.Y., partners with a self-help guru named Fiona Snow. The gala opening promises not only a revelation of Cecily’s long-hidden paternity but also a Shakespearean comedy of unmasking true natures.

McCauley’s wit shines through in this highly designed narrative, drawing comparisons to literary luminaries like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. His characters, including the embattled Tom, navigate the challenges of middle age with humor and psychological acuity. 

The novel subtly explores themes of mortality and self-discovery, as Dorothy’s choices reflect a shallower form of self-help that skirts true altruism.

You Only Call When You’re in Trouble sparkles with McCauley’s signature style, maintaining a delicate balance between clever one-liners and profound reflections on life’s endings. The story raises poignant questions about what we leave behind, whether it’s our work, mistakes, or imperfect relationships. McCauley’s narrative captivates, leaving readers reluctant to part with his distinctive voice and sensibility.

In the post-holiday lull of the new year, McCauley’s novel proves a delightful escape, offering a steady mood lift akin to the effervescence of champagne bubbles. As the characters grapple with life’s twists, the novel’s sparkling prose provides a refreshing respite, making it a compelling read for those seeking both laughter and contemplation.

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