When there’s a lot of stress in my life, one of my favorite genres to turn to is humorous essays. I’ve consumed nearly all of David Sedaris’s oeuvre, and as repeat readers might know, have recently added Sarah Vowell’s voice to the go-to list. So when I saw a blurb on this cover comparing Crosley to both Sedaris and Vowell, I was immediately intrigued. In I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Crosley turns her sharp wit to her own life, creating a humorous account of one woman’s experiences maneuvering careers, relationships, girlhood, and occasional humiliation. The further I got into this book, the more it became like having coffee with a friend (even if I’m a bit worried about what this friend might be saying about me to our other friends).
Crosley’s voice is intelligent and sharp. Her essays manage to be light and fun without becoming vapid and uninteresting, even as she writes about seemingly mundane aspects of daily life. The essays span a broad range of experiences, but their unifying theme seems to be exploring the roles that Crosley plays (or fail to play) in her life. Crosley writes without reserve about being a friend, a lover, a career-woman, and sometimes, the girl who has to call the same locksmith twice in one day to let her into her apartment. She sometimes casts a harsh light on the rituals we’ve come to accept as part of existing together, like weddings and dinner parties, but her sharpness is softened by her willingness to make fun of herself, as well. The result is an authentic and often endearing commentary on life in Crosley’s world.
It seems worth nothing that the scope of Crosley’s world is pretty specific. These essays are not about womanhood or young adulthood so much as they are about the young adulthood of a white, East Coast, suburban-turned-New Yorker woman. Crosley is writing humorous anecdotes about her own personal life, and so the scope is going to be inevitably narrower than, say, Eula Biss’s sociopolitical commentary. While I find Biss’s essays more interesting, I don’t disparage Crosley’s work for being what it is. As Nick Lezard noted in his review of this book for The Guardian (for, in my ambivalence, I sought out other opinions), “As I have commented before, it is the job of a good writer to familiarise readers with modes of experience quite alien to them, and I Was Told There’d Be Cake does that. I did not know what it was like to be a young, attractive, intelligent woman living in Manhattan; I might have tried to imagine it once or twice, but been scalded so horribly by envy that I gave up after three seconds.” Many of the essay collections I’ve read combine personal experience with more journalistic or scholarly commentary, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention of this work. I note this not as a criticism, but simply to say that if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not what you’ll find; rather, as Lezard characterizes, I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a humorous account of what it’s like to be this specific person, in this specific place and time. And Crosley seems to know this, and at times even lampoons the markers of privilege that exist in her world. It all comes together to make a vivid and enjoyable portrait of a life.
I would be lying to say that this book struck quite as much of a chord with me as Sedaris’s or Vowell’s works have done, but I am glad I spent some time with this funny, sharp, smart voice. If you’re as stressed out by the rapid passage of time as I have been, this book might be a good companion, one who’s witty, bold, and warm enough to shake you out of your worries for a while.