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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, a trendy 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 neighborhood.

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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