Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Reviewed by Natalie Tsay

What happens when cool kids grow up and have kids of their own? Are
most modern marriages just floating somewhere between the pure bliss of the
honeymoon period and the bitter misery that precedes divorce? Can the past ever
truly be ancient history, or does it affect us every day of our lives? Is sex really that
big of a deal?
These are just a few of the questions that Emma Straub tackles in her new novel, Modern Lovers. Set in Brooklyn, the book follows two families—the Kahn-Bennetts and the Marxes. Back at Oberlin in their undergrad days, Elizabeth Marx, Andrew Marx, Lydia Greenbaum, and Zoe Kahn-Bennett were in a band called Kitty’s Mustache. One of their songs, written by Elizabeth and made famous by Lydia after the breakup of the band, becomes a huge hit, but the band dies for good when Lydia dies of overdose, the typical rock star exit. Years later, Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe have all grown up. Elizabeth and Andrew have a son, Harry, while Zoe and a woman named Jane have a daughter, Ruby. As the summary on the book’s jacket implies, the parents’ worlds are shaken the summer their kids start sleeping together, forcing reflection on their own youth and how they’ve ended up where they are. Each of these characters gets their own voice throughout the novel, yet some are clearly more fully developed than others.
On top of dealing with Harry and Ruby, the adults have other things on their
plates. When they’re asked to sign over the rights to Kitty’s Mustache’s one hit
wonder, “Mistress of Myself,” as well as their life rights for a biopic about Lydia,
Elizabeth and Andrew clash over whether or not they should give the filmmakers free reign on casting and creating them as characters in the movie. Stuck in a mid-
life crisis, Andrew looks for a way to fill his unemployed days and finds his answer in EVOLVEment, a hippie, yogi, raving, kombucha-selling, cult-like operation
running out of a shabby home in his neighborhood, Ditmas Park. Zoe struggles to
determine whether or not her disappointment in her marriage is enough to call it
quits, while Jane desperately wishes to find a way to make it work. At the bottom
of all of their problems, each one of the “adult” protagonists yearns to be young
again.
Meanwhile, the ones who are still in the midst of their youth have their own
problems (don’t we all?). Ruby, taking an SAT prep course after graduating high
school, has no plans beyond the summer because all of her college applications
came back as rejections. This might, Ruby reflects toward the beginning of the
novel, have to do with the fact that she wrote her admissions essay on why college
is unnecessary. Harry, a rising senior and a bland little square, undergoes a
transformation once he starts hanging out with Ruby, whom he’s always had a bit
of a crush on. Frustrated by his parents’ assumption that he is incapable of doing
any wrong, Harry acts out in small but significant ways to prove that he isn’t a total
goodie-goodie.

Needless to say, there is a whole lot going on in Modern Lovers. One current thatruns subtly under the mayhem, though, is Straub’s solid portrayal of Brooklyn—
Ditmas Park and the surrounding area, to be specific. The narrative was not lacking
for details that really ground the reader in the neighborhood. The most beautiful
image that I took away from reading Modern Lovers pops up very early in the
book, and it’s the city as a palimpsest, or text within a text:
She’d heard once that what made you a real New Yorker was when
you could remember back three layers—the place on the corner that
had been a bakery and then a barbershop before it was a cell-phone
store … The city was a palimpsest … Newcomers saw only what was
in front of them, but people who had been there long enough were
always looking at two or three other places simultaneously.
Perhaps all the details sprinkled throughout the novel were self-indulgent—
the author clearly knows New York City, as she went to Columbia University
and currently resides in Brooklyn. I could see how some of the setting-building
could get a bit tedious for readers who aren’t familiar with Brooklyn street names,
train lines, or neighborhoods. Yet even if you don’t know the city, Straub’s insider
knowledge invites the reader to jump right into the world, which you will probably
want to know better after you’re done reading.
Though every single character has his or her own more-or-less whole story,
there are major overlaps. And while the relationships between all of the characters
are inherently pretty interesting, I wound up disappointed with most of them. For
instance, the band, Kitty’s Mustache, was said to be constantly divided into two
teams: Andrew and Lydia vs. Elizabeth and Zoe, which is a little odd considering
that Elizabeth and Andrew wind up married. The tension is explained later on in
the book as the truth about Lydia comes out during the work on the film, but one
thing that’s not explained is Andrew’s fierce animosity toward Zoe. He lashes out
at her when Ruby persuades Harry to auction off old Kitty’s Mustache pictures on
eBay, blaming rotten Zoe for her rotten daughter. Yet he seems to have no evidence
to back up his claim that Zoe is the absolute worst.
Another strange relationship is Elizabeth and Andrew’s: they both have
their frustrations, yet none seem to directly threaten their marriage. But when
Elizabeth signs Andrew’s name on the contracts for the Lydia biopic, Andrew
goes ballistic, claiming that his resistance was on her behalf. He asserts that the
movie will be garbage, and when Elizabeth asks in disbelief if he’s worried about
Lydia’s reputation, he says, “I’m worried about you, Lizzy, not Lydia … She might
have been kind of an asshole, but at least she didn’t pretend to be something else.
Everyone else thinks you’re so sweet, so nice,” before walking out of the house.
There are a few more times when it seems to be implied that Elizabeth has some
kind of dirty secret, something terrible known only to her and Andrew. Yet the
way in which this tension is handled is lackluster; the resolution doesn’t even make
much sense in the context that sets it up.
The biggest issue I had with the characters’ relationships, though, was that they took much too long to develop. It wasn’t until about 150 pages into the book,
almost half of it, that I started to get a feel for what the dynamics between them
were, and I was also still being handed new information that changed everything
and seemed to come out of nowhere, like a romance-that-could’ve-been between
Elizabeth and Zoe, and Jane’s resentment (sometimes justified, sometimes
irrational) of Elizabeth’s status as Zoe’s best friend and go-to. Until almost the
end of the book, most of the relationships just felt flat and appeared somewhat
superficial to me.
Alongside the problems with the group dynamics, the individual characters had
inconsistencies. In Ruby’s case, the dialogue was often stilted and uncharacteristic.
She is supposed to be a cool, edgy girl who wears a provocative white-fringed
dress to graduation and colors her hair purple, and most of the time her dialogue
matches up, but then sometimes she’ll say something just a little weird, and it
breaks the consistency of her character. For example, when Harry, determined to
inject some spontaneity into his life, begins to lead Ruby away from both of their
houses, she says, “You do know that our houses are both the other direction, right?
Did you have some kind of brain injury while I wasn’t paying attention?” While it
sounds like a plausible enough piece of dialogue, it doesn’t quite match up to the
snarky wit of the rest of her lines.
Jane spends most of the story as a peripheral character, having not been around
during the Kitty’s Mustache days, and lacks a background or any strong personality
traits. Zoe also never became a completely realized character, perhaps because her
perspective is given the least amount of space in the novel—she’s just wishy-washy
about her marriage to Jane for reasons that we as readers never fully grasp because
we are only told, repeatedly, that the marriage is falling apart. As for the Marxes,
Andrew is too stereotypically angsty and disillusioned with middle age, pouring
his energy and money into a ramshackle, doomed from the start “yoga studio.”
Poor Harry is slightly too naïve to be true, and Elizabeth just doesn’t have anything
special enough to make her truly memorable. It’s not that any of them were drawn
particularly badly, it was just that they weren’t drawn particularly well either.
Another problem I had with Modern Lovers was the lack of interaction between
the adults and their children. By reading the cover, you would think that the
beginning of Harry and Ruby’s sexual relationship is a big part of the story. As
Ruby says herself, “Sex wasn’t a big deal. Sex was the biggest deal.” And the parents
do get involved in their kids’ goings-on when Harry and Ruby get taken to the
police station after being found having sex in a playground one night. Aside from
this incident, the parents really aren’t thinking about their kids much at all, unless
it’s to envy them for their youth. They have concerns of their own, rather big
ones, and hardly pay much attention to their kids. They’re barely ever in the same scene at all, really, which is surprising for a book that seems to focus on the inter-
generational relationships. Although it may sound like I have a lot of negative things to say about Modern Lovers, there are also some brilliant aspects of the novel that very much resonated with me. There’s a wonderfully depicted backdrop that enriches rather
than dominates the story. There are truly beautiful and poignant passages — a particularly impactful one is about the importance of timing in the way our lives
turn out. There are portraits of marriages and other important relationships that
do seem thoroughly “modern.” But besides these bright few flashes, there wasn’t
much. Overall, Modern Lovers, while light and entertaining enough, is unlikely to
leave a lasting impression.

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