Emma Straub’s new novel, “Modern Lovers,” shares a soothing warm-weather vibe with her equally entertaining 2014 novel, “The Vacationers.” It’s hard to top the locale of “The Vacationers” — a sunny island in the Mediterranean Sea — but in Straub’s skillful hands, the Brooklyn setting of “Modern Lovers” is just as colorful a destination. Summer in the city has never felt so good.
All of Straub’s lovable characters are feeling time rushing by. A father wonders “how it was that he wasn’t the child anymore, how his baby boy had become a teenager, and how it was possible that he — Andrew Marx! — would soon be fifty.” Three doors down, Jane Kahn-Bennett also mourns the past and longs for the time when she and her wife, Zoe, first fell in love. “It was all balloons, all hope,” she remembers. “Now that they knew what the future held — what the future looked like — it was much harder. Why couldn’t everyone stay young forever?”
Back in the ’80s, during their Oberlin College days, Zoe, Andrew and his current wife, Elizabeth, earned a footnote in pop music history. They and their pal Lydia Greenbaum were members of Kitty’s Mustache, a moderately successful rock band. The band didn’t last long, but Lydia’s solo career took off, and when she joined the “27 Club” by dying at the same age as rock gods Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others, her legacy went platinum. Now, decades later, a movie is being made of Lydia’s life, and the filmmakers want the former members of Kitty’s Mustache to sign over rights to a famous song. Everyone is onboard except for Andrew, whose secrets stretch back to the band’s time at school.
The old members of Kitty’s Mustache seem to be aging gracefully despite some typical marital and family stress. Elizabeth is a Brooklyn real estate agent, Jane and Zoe own a successful neighborhood restaurant, and Andrew, a trust-fund baby, flits from filmmaking to carpentry, trying to find his true calling. He’s a great husband and father but shares the restlessness and uncertainty about the future that consumes all of the novel’s characters.
Elizabeth and Zoe continue to be best friends, and their teenage children, Harry and Ruby, have grown up together. Harry is an easy kid, and Ruby, the novel’s most wonderfully imagined character, is seemingly unfazed by her life as the biracial daughter of lesbian parents. Gloriously outspoken and independent, she’s struggling to find her path forward after high school even as her parents work to hold their marriage together. That Ruby and Harry have a summer romance is an obvious but lovely subplot, and it’s perfectly juxtaposed against the existential crises bewildering their parents. Andrew, Elizabeth, Jane and Zoe are having enough trouble sorting out their own lives and relationships. Coping with their sexually active children adds comedy as well as drama to this family tale.
Like ABC’s “Modern Family,” “Modern Lovers” celebrates the updated look and feel of familial love and all of its complexities. Straub’s clever and perceptive observations on growing up are gentle reminders that coming of age isn’t just for kids.
Carol Memmott’s book reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
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By Emma Straub
Riverhead. 356 pp. $26