I Was Told There’d Be Cake

I Was Told There'd Be Cake BY Sloane Crosley. Riverhead Trade. Paperback, 240 pages. $14.

The cover of I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sloane Crosley is at that age at which you’re old enough to realize that it’s not all about you but young enough to suspect that the majority of it must be. Fortunately for readers of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, her collection of essays, she’s also smart enough to know that if it’s going to be about her, it needs to be surprising, entertaining, and sometimes moving. If Crosley is going to use her life as a launching pad for discussing oft-considered issues like the boss from hell, the torment of being a bridesmaid, and the horrors of moving day in New York City, she had better be, for lack of a better phrase, a good hostess.

Crosley grew up in suburban Westchester, the daughter of a perfectly nice set of Jewish parents, about whom the worst that could be said is that they celebrated Christmas (or at least had a tree) and sent their youngest daughter to a Christian sleepaway camp, where she was taught folk songs with titles like “The Lord Loves a Strong Swimmer.” She was a coddled, whip-smart girl who, as the grown-up veteran of no fewer than five “mall chick” jobs, acknowledges that she is experientially challenged.

In “Sign Language for Infidels,” Crosley writes about her disastrous attempt to remedy her selfishness (“I spontaneously forget the names of more people than not, unless I want to make out with them”) by signing up to volunteer at the Museum of Natural History’s popular butterfly exhibit. After only a few shifts, she starts forgetting to show up because “there was no one to congratulate me.” “People are less quick to applaud as you grow older,” she notes. “Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.”

Most of Crosley’s essays expertly juggle the hilarious and a mournful sense of the passage of time (otherwise known as growing up). “The Ursula Cookie,” which details her postcollege job as the abused assistant of a demonic literary agent, is a triumph of both the universal and the specific. The titular character’s compulsive hurling of unearned insults and unbound manuscripts may seem familiar, but Crosley claims this misery as her own, first by baking a Christmas cookie in the likeness of her sadistic boss and then by getting busted for calling in one Monday morning with the dead-aunt excuse. “You on a Stick,” about the travails of being a bridesmaid (modern brides have turned the “honor” into a yearlong part-time job), is also a meditation on the way girlhood friendship evolves, for better or for worse. Less successful are the essays on the surprise revelation of her mother’s first marriage, which receives short shrift, even by Crosley’s own self-absorbed standards, and on being a vegetarian. It’s a quibble, but the pieces seem skimpy compared with the other ones here.

The author’s humor is pleasantly subversive. Her first lines alone could serve as examples in comedy-writing seminars: “The second I was old enough to know what sex was, I knew I wanted to have a one-night stand.” There’s a whiff of Dorothy Parker here, but Crosley’s wit is less biting and, despite her high-spirited solipsism, more inclusive. Her paean to the kindness of random New Yorkers, who always return her numerous lost wallets, is downright sweet.