Behind the music, and the marriages, in “Modern Lovers”


27209486If this were the one of the last summers you had with your kid before he left for college, it would be natural to begin reminiscing about your own not-quite-adult self, and reflect on how little time it took for your child to reach the same exact moment of uncertainty and promise. But let’s say you happened to be married to one of your college boyfriends, and living across the street from your best friend from college–the situation in which we find the we find the characters in Emma Straub’s new novel, Modern Lovers. The nostalgia would be inescapable, then. Your past, present and future would co-exist in every room, every glance, every moment.

Why these close-knit, well-drawn characters settled so close to each other, and did not drift apart, at least to different neighborhoods, like most of us do from the friends we met in our 20s, requires a tiny leap of believability, but it is an establishing shot that tells us that we will not be traveling very far with this coterie. Their relationships have barely strayed from their college years, and that, in large part, is the source of their mid-life crises.

Immediately following Oberlin–which clues you into the economic class and the creative bent of this crew–Elizabeth and Andrew moved into the Ditmas Park house their college friend Zoe’s parents purchased for her. In time, Zoe marries Jane, a chef, and together they start a farm-to-table restaurant that becomes a neighborhood staple. Their most beautiful collaboration, though, is their daughter Ruby, a terrifically insolent teenager who has been more difficult to manage. Also: their marriage is in a deep funk, and for much of the book they seem headed for divorce.

Elizabeth and Andrew, who have a decent marriage and a very good boy, Harry, bought their own home across the street, at a fraction of its current value. We know this because this is New York, and as anyone who has watched The Squid and the Whale knows, Ditmas Park was a steal back in the late 80s/early 90s, and while these characters would have bought there a bit later, it had definitely not yet reached Michelle Williams’ prices. Also: Elizabeth is a real estate agent, so calculating listings is in her nature.

In a sense, these couples are all sitting on fortunes–well-established marriages, untapped creative talent, lives not fully lived–and they’re all squandering them in some way. This is particularly true of Elizabeth, who is a musician first, and a more talented one than her husband and Zoe. Together with a mess of a lead singer, Lydia, the four of them played in a band called Kitty’s Mustache in college. Lydia left the band and later overdosed, but not before recording a song that would cement her status as a punk rock legend and become an anthem for twentysomething girls everywhere called, “Mistress of Myself.”

Elizabeth wrote that song, and when a Hollywood producer enters the picture to secure the rights to produce a biopic of Lydia–a story that would necessarily include her bandmates, especially the songwriter instrumental to her success–it’s a chance for Elizabeth to reclaim her talent and relive her youth. Her husband, on the other hand, is staunchly opposed to signing away his story–and by default, is preventing Elizabeth from getting hers told.

The one foot in the past, one foot in the present aspect of the book is mirrored by their children, Harry and Ruby. Harry, who is a year younger, has had a crush on Ruby for some time; Ruby has not really given much thought to the boy she grew up with until the two begin the same Saturday morning SAT prep course. For Ruby it’s a last-ditch effort on her parents’ part to get her into college, something she failed to do the first time around. For Harry it’s exactly as stated–a prep course that will keep him on his predestined path to a good school. They are on unequal footing in love too, as Harry is the one who falls hard, and Ruby is biding time until she figures out what to when all her friends go off to college at the end of the summer.

The Ruby and Harry sections are palpably electric and fun to read, a refreshing break from the regret and angst that consumes the adults in this book, whose inner lives are not as well drawn as the circumstances they find themselves in. Andrew in particular is a perfect specimen of an unevolved man child who joins a cultish yoga/kombucha-making group living in a house down the block known as EVOLVEment. (Was that ridiculous art commune once profiled in the New York Times the inspiration? I wondered.) He seems harmless and nice enough, though, until we discover the real reason he does not want the Lydia biopic to be made, a reveal that finally delivers a heart-quickening, page-turning race to the end. As it turns out, the relationship most at risk was Andrew and Elizabeth’s marriage–a last-minute crisis whose resolution, were this an indie film (and it very much feels like one) would cue to a dramatic, sentimental montage, with Elizabeth soundtracking its final scenes. The payoff of the book, in other words, is not life-changing, but it is definitely entertaining.

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