Tired of all the grim news these past few weeks and the incessant anxiety that has characterized 2018? Here are a couple of books that should lift your mood …
First and foremost is “The Story of Arthur Truluv” (Random House), an ideal escape from these anxious times. Written by Elizabeth Berg, a prolific author with more than two dozen books to her name, it’s a tale about love, hope and second chances. Thoroughly delightful, and an easy read, this slim story — it runs just over 200 pages — manages to settle into these themes without being sentimental or cliche.
The story takes place in a small Missouri town and centers on three characters who have lost someone close. Two are in their 80s, one is an 18-year-old with a nose ring. 85-year-old Arthur Moses packs a lunch and goes to the cemetery daily to visit his beloved wife Nola, who died six months earlier. He talks with her, and also connects with other graves nearby. He seems to be able to “know” things about the various people buried there. At home, he eats whatever canned goods he can mix together and tries to prevent his moody cat, Gordon, from running away. Sweet, gentle Arthur is the opposite of literature’s cranky golden agers, such as those in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge” and the popular “A Man Called Ove.”
Lucille Howard, Arthur’s lovelorn and nosy neighbor, occasionally cooks for him, and tries to entice Arthur onto her front porch with her delicious baked goods. Lucille’s an old maid who has waited a lifetime for true love only to have it snatched away. And then there’s young Maddy Harris, a teen whose mother died weeks after she was born, leaving her father devastated and emotionally distant. She finds sanctuary in the graveyard from the mean kids who bully her in the lunchroom, as well as from the creepy men she sneaks out to see. Meeting Arthur in the cemetery, Maddy nicknames him “Truluv” because of his devotion to his wife.
These three lonely souls, — Arthur, Lucille, and Maddy — get to know one another and, over time, form a makeshift family when Maddy and Lucille — who originally disliked Maddy — move in with the saintly Truluv. Arthur’s gentle and understanding approach to his housemates helps smooth out the rough spots in their arrangement. Arthur’s philosophy is “aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance.”
As the points of view shift among these three characters, we learn that Maddy, a senior in high school, has been ostracized by her classmates, and not just in the cafeteria. Her problems stem in part from the fact that her cold father absurdly blames her for her mother’s death in a car crash soon after her birth. A retired schoolteacher, elderly Lucille, never wed because Frank, her high school sweetheart, married someone else. However, Frank has recently reappeared, swears he has loved her all along, and tries to rekindle their romance.
Maddy, it turns out, hooked-up several times with an older man she met at Walmart, and one of these meetings has left her pregnant. She lands at Truluv’s when her father urges her to get an abortion, and he and Lucille become Maddy’s surrogate parents. By taking over the heavier house chores, Maddy helps them age in place and, since Lucille and Truluv neither have children, they can’t wait for the baby, providing Maddy the unconditional moral and financial support she craves.
In many ways, the book challenges readers to toss aside cynical beliefs and see the good in people and in the world. Berg seems to say that, for a brief time, try to pay less attention to the endless stream of bad news, and concentrate on what and who’s good in the world. This is no easy feat, but she doesn’t appear to be arguing that the world’s endless problems are not important and should be ignored; she’s suggesting that compassion is worth focusing on as well. “The Story of Arthur Truluv” is a book for now because we could all use a bit of Arthur’s selflessness, kindness and forgiveness of fellow human beings.
Stephen McCauley’s latest book, “My Ex-Life” (Flatiron Books) mirrors many of the themes and messages in Truluv. The author has written six books previously, clever and humorous satires on the behaviors of contemporary day-to-day life, and this latest comes after an eight-year hiatus. He is best known for his debut book, “The Object of My Affection,” about the relationship between mismatched roommates — a gay man and a straight woman, a topic he returns to in “My Ex-Life,” which could easily be called a comedy of modern-day manners.
The story concerns David Hedges, a gay man in his 50s, who is a college tutor to San Francisco’s privileged teenagers and their insufferable parents. His boyfriend Soren has abruptly dumped him for an older man, a surgeon; he has become fat; and his best friend, a realtor, is selling his beautiful ocean-view, under-market rental out from under him. Just as his life seems to be going up in smoke, he hears from Julie Fiske, his ex-wife from 30 years ago. David and Julie’s young and brief marriage ended as agreeably as it could have when they lost a baby and David revealed that he was gay. Now Julie is desperately trying to buy her second ex-husband out of their dilapidated Victorian seaside Massachusetts home that she has been running as an Air BnB to make ends meet. She also wants her unambitious 17-year-old daughter Mandy to get serious about applying to colleges, and she seeks David’s help.
To escape his own problems, and because Julie means a lot to him, David flies across country to spend his summer vacation with her and Mandy, determined to help them put their lives back on track. His one-week trip quickly becomes open-ended as he helps Julie make her cluttered home more welcoming to guests, and he establishes a warm relationship with the confused Mandy.
McCauley’s expertise is his unforgettable cast of supporting characters, such as Sandra-the-lush, an online whiz on maximizing Air BnBs who has an obsession with throw pillows; Julie’s neighbor Amira, who goes after any attractive guy despite marriage to her rich, older husband; and Kenneth, a domineering, questionable antique store owner romantically interested in David, among others. These quirky characters are often revealed in just a few sentences of dialog as readers become fascinated by their eccentric qualities. McCauley has his characters say bizarre things that most people would never have the nerve to say out loud such as “All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy,” and “She and her husband were wine connoisseurs, which is to say, incipient alcoholics with money.”
Like Truluv, “My Ex-Life” is a meditation on second chances in life. While McCauley appears to mock many modern cultural traditions, he ultimately endorses the values of home, family and especially friendship. He delivers his message with perception and humor, whether he’s criticizing college application essays or live porn websites. In this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” hearing the plain truth about our daily peculiarities is refreshing. The people in the book grow in ways they don’t recognize as they teeter toward a fresh start that they didn’t even know they needed. Stephen McCauley is a clever observer of the human condition and with “My Ex-Life” he suggests that, despite our foibles and differences, we need to endure and figure out how to get along with other people — a timely message for our partisan era.