'Modern Lovers': Angst afflicts even the advantaged
July 17, 2016 12:00 AM
“Modern Lovers,” author Emma Straub’s fourth novel.
By Melissa M. Firman
In “Modern Lovers,” Emma Straub’s fourth novel, the realizations of main character Elizabeth Marx may sound familiar to those who have come to understand life’s uncertain nature. “Timing was everything — that was more and more obvious the older you got, when you finally understood that the universe wasn’t held together in any way that made sense. There was no order, there was no plan….There was no fate. Life was just happenstance and luck, bound together by the desire for order.”
By Emma Straub Riverhead ($26).
On the surface, Elizabeth’s life seems … well, orderly. Living with her trust fund baby husband Andrew in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, she’s a successful real estate agent selling million-dollar homes. Her best friend Zoe lives a few blocks away — all the more convenient for book club gatherings fueled by wine and food from the trendy restaurant Zoe co-owns with her wife Jane. (They may be getting a divorce. Or not.) Both couples have teenagers who predictably fall into a friends-with-benefits relationship.
Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe know each other from their Oberlin College days, so naturally there’s some dormant personal life history just waiting to reawaken after more than 20 years.
You see, once upon a time during the ancient 1990s grunge scene, the threesome formed a band. Regulars on the college circuit, the oddly named Kitty’s Mustache became a one hit wonder with “Mistress of Myself,” a screeching scream-filled tune which a fourth band member, Lydia, used to catapult her solo career into cult stardom before she died at 27. Now, two decades later, Hollywood is calling with plans for a movie and the surviving band members are caught in a predictable maelstrom of nostalgia, guilt, regret, and self-doubt. The ghosts of their collective past are alive and well and have arrived with all their baggage for an extended stay.
While “Modern Lovers’” plot starts off promising, it quickly stumbles and loses its way, much like its unhappy, self-centered and mostly unlikable characters who react with melodrama in the face of life’s minor problems. (They also are fond of dropping f-bombs into their banal conversation; be forewarned, reader, if gratuitous usage of such four-letter words is offensive.)
The irony is that these people are doing just fine, thank you. Both sets of teenagers go to private school. Zoe and Jane’s home is worth $2 million, paid in full “with disco money” earned by Zoe’s musician parents. Andrew’s family money has provided him with a true life of leisure, as he has never needed to put his college education to good use by procuring gainful employment. (He spends his days drinking kombucha and doing yoga with other health-minded souls.)
Marketed as a breezy summer beach read for the Generation X demographic, “Modern Lovers” clearly fits that bill. Those who are among the 46 million people who came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s (this reviewer included) are well-acquainted with the what-the-hell-is-the-purpose-of-my-life themes presented by Ms. Straub, the 36-year-old daughter of horror writer Peter Straub.
However, “Modern Lovers” doesn’t break new ground while exploring this familiar terrain of middle-aged induced angst. Despite all their advantages, Ms. Straub’s characters still fall prey to wistful nostalgia and the manipulative influence of others while overlooking their literal and figurative good fortune. And maybe that’s the point: When the present doesn’t always match the ambitions, hopes, and dreams from our past, what we have right now in this unpredictable modern life is all that really matters.
Melissa M. Firman of Cranberry writes about books and life at melissafirman.com.
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