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Onyx reviews: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 5/31/2016
The weakest member of Kitty's Mustache, a college band formed by four friends
at Oberlin, turned one of their songs, "Mistress of Myself," into a
feminist anthem. The song's reputation long outlasted Lydia Greenbaum, another
member of the "27 club" of musicians who died at that age. Now, two
decades later, Hollywood wants to make a Lydia biopic and the remaining
band members are asked to agree to having their lives depicted on film.
The others have remained close. Elizabeth and Andrew got
married and have a seventeen-year-old-son, Harry. Zoe lives nearby, and is the
mother of eighteen-year-old Ruby. She's "mum" and her wife Jane is
"mom." Harry and Ruby were childhood friends who drifted apart but are
now in the process of rediscovering each other.
They all live in Ditmas Park, a region of Brooklyn where people occupy houses
with yards instead of apartments or brownstones. Zoe and Jane, who run Hyacinth,
French restaurant in the neighborhood, are going through a rough patch in their
relationship. They seem to have decided they're headed for a divorce, even
though the nature of their marital discord isn't clear. They're drifting apart,
and Zoe has taken to sleeping in the guest room.
Everything seems fine with Andrew and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a successful
realtor, but Andrew. on the verge of turning 50 and independently wealthy thanks to his rich parents,
is at loose ends about what to do with his life, never having had to choose a
profession. It's a
classic mid-life crisis fuelled by a lack of urgency due to his wealth. When
he discovers a house in the neighborhood where a charismatic man is offering
meditation and yoga, he finds himself attracted to the situation, spending more
and more time there.
Ruby is at a crossroads, too. Her parents are forcing her to take an SAT prep
course, even though she's already graduated from high school. She didn't get
into any of the colleges she applied to, but her SAT scores aren't the
issue, she knows. The blame rests squarely with an ill-advised essay she
submitted with her applications. She's not sure she wants to go to college.
However, Harry is taking the same class—he's still a year away from
graduation—so they start to hang out together again. Harry is smitten by
her and Ruby decides to return the affection, for the time being.
Elizabeth, who wrote "Mistress of Myself," is willing and eager
when she's approached by a studio for rights to the song and their lives. She's
proud of the song and only slightly resentful that it was Lydia who turned it
into something big. Zoe is on board with the project, too, but Andrew is against
it, for reasons that become increasingly important to the story. The studio rep
is persistent, forcing Elizabeth to make unwise decisions.
In a recent interview, Straub said that one complaint about her previous
novel, The Vacationers, was that the
characters all seemed too upper-crust, so she gave her characters jobs in Modern
Lovers. True, Elizabeth is a realtor and Zoe and Jane run Hyacinth, but
economics aren't a factor for any of them. They aren't struggling to figure out
how they're going to afford to send Harry or Ruby to college, and even a
momentary setback with the restaurant is merely an opportunity for Zoe and Jane
to expand their enterprise. They all live comfortable lives in a cozy
Comfortable, but angst-ridden. It's the relationships among this six-pack of
endearing characters that drive the story, not any external crisis. Elizabeth is
at the center of everything, although she doesn't realize it. One of the biggest
issues with Jane and Zoe is how close Zoe is to Elizabeth. They have a long
history together as college friends, and Elizabeth has a habit of demanding
Zoe's attention when she wants to talk about something. All of the other
conflicts bring out something in Elizabeth, something she's been missing since
her glory days at Oberlin, and by the end of the book, the six characters have
to come to decisions about their paths forward in life.
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