Car Talk’s Louie Cronin on Her Cambridge-Centric First Novel

everyone loves you back

Louie Cronin was born right here in Cambridge. Her parents grew up in the city; they met each other in third grade. Her dad owned a restaurant in Harvard Square. She spent her childhood playing in Cambridge’s streets, and while her family moved to the suburbs when she was 11, she would return in her thirties for almost two decades.

It’s fitting, then, that the former Car Talk producer’s debut novel Everyone Loves You Back isn’t just set in Cambridge, but tells a story that really couldn’t take place anywhere else.

“I keep telling people: Cambridge is almost a character in the book,” Cronin says. To her, the city is exciting because it’s at once full of accomplished, professional people—scientists and professors—yet it’s a remarkable, artsy place full of quirks and eccentricities. “I aways wanted to write about what a wild place it was to grow up in.”

But it’s also a place that’s changing—and quickly. Everyone Loves You Back follows Bob, a forty-something radio engineer still living in the house he grew up in. He’s surrounded by the super wealthy and successful, watching as his neighborhood and city change rapidly. Yuppies on his street are making expensive renovations to their houses, especially frustrating for a guy who works the night shift. He can’t keep up. And there are changes at work, too—the radio station is switching up its formatting and taking the programming in a new direction. Feeling that both his neighborhood and work are under threat, Bob meets two women, one from the radio station, one a sophisticated Harvard professor who embodies much of what he hates about his changing neighborhood, Bob has to make some choices about the past and future and about what it is he really wants.

Cronin says that the decision to model Bob’s career after her own was something of a happy accident. She knew she needed a character who slept during the day, when renovations were happening. “I thought to myself, ‘So, what does he do? He sleeps all day, he does something at night… oh, radio engineer! That’s something I know,” she laughs, having done her share of overnight shifts.

That let her mine her own life for experiences, and that’s likely not the only place her work Car Talk helped shape the story. Bob is a bit offbeat, a little bohemian—and very sarcastic and funny. Sound like a pair of radio personalities you might know?

“Tom and Ray are just as funny in real life as they are on the radio—maybe even funnier,” Cronin says of working with the Magliozzi brothers on Car Talk, where she made up games and screened calls.”I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard.”

We won’t tell you what happens in Bob’s “coming of middle age” story, but Cronin’s Cambridge tale ends with her leaving for Jamaica Plain in 2004. She wanted to buy a home, and there was just no way she could afford to do so here. She remembers climbing five flights of crooked stairs, her knee aching, to look at a condo in East Cambridge, arriving at the top only to think to herself, “I’m too old!” Besides, she says, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the place—it was out of her price range anyway, and she was one of scores of people looking at it.

That feeling is part of what inspired her to write Everyone Loves You Back. “I was just sitting there, feeling that pressure myself,” she says. “[Bob] becomes heroic, to me … He’s a laid-back guy who just wants to be left alone. He’s a good soul, and he’s a compassionate person, and he stands up to the changes that he doesn’t think are good.”

Because even if Cambridge is changing rapidly, displacing real life radio producers and disgruntling fictional ones, Cronin is quick to add that it really is a one-of-a-kind city.

“It really is about Cambridge, and how Cambridge is a place where, you know, the person downstairs from you can later win the Nobel Prize. It’s a remarkable place to be, but with that comes incredible pressure.”

Cronin will discuss Everyone Loves You Back at Porter Square Books on Friday, October 21 at 7 p.m.