The Short Version: It’s summer in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn. Friends Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe met in college (in a band) and still live just a few houses down from each other on the same street – Elizabeth and Andrew with their son Harry, Zoe with her wife Jane and daughter Ruby. Over the course of the summer, Harry and Ruby start sleeping together, Zoe and Jane’s marriage goes on the rocks, and Andrew starts hanging out at a strange spiritual healing place – and circling over it all is a potential biopic of their fourth bandmate, who died at 27 but never quite left their minds…
The Review: One day last summer, I was walking with a friend from his apartment on the south edge of Prospect Park. He had suggested burgers and knew of a place just a 15 minute walk away. The walk ended up taking something more like a half hour, because as soon as we crossed Church Ave, I kept stopping in confusion and awe to exclaim things like “Wait, what the hell? Where are we?!” There were yards, both front and back. Driveways. Houses with space between them. Families out for a stroll, moms jogging with strollers, kids playing on the sidewalk and in the street. Could this possibly still be New York or had I been warped, somehow, back to the suburbs where I grew up?
This preamble is important because Straub captures that baffling oddity of Ditmas Park so well in this book – and it informs nearly everything that happens, that underlying strangeness of space and time. A half-hour (or less) train-ride away from Manhattan and the most bustling parts of the city, you’re out into the suburbs but still retaining some measure of essential New York City-ness. I’ve never seen anywhere quite like it and I’m not sure anywhere else quite like it exists. One of the best things about this book is that, through this choice of locale, it simultaneously captures the joys of growing up in the suburbs and the wonders of being in the particular center of the world that is New York City.
As with Straub’s last book, The Vacationers, we are looking at families and relationships: this time, our main characters are a straight white couple and their son and a multiracial lesbian couple and their daughter. Both marriages are in some kind of trouble – some more obvious than other – and the kids, meanwhile, are approaching the end of high school with concern and confusion about what the future holds. It all feels like something you’ve maybe heard – or almost certainly lived – before, but Straub’s passion and heart make you care almost from the outset about these characters, nearly as much as you would your own friends in similar circumstances. Chapters rotate between points of view, allowing us to not only see the stories from every angle but to see the characters themselves that way and becoming as human in the process as if Straub had wandered down to Ditmas Park and plucked them off the street, pushing them into the pages of the novel.
Their stories are complex, even though they might appear simple. Ruby and Harry, children of collegiate best friends, should make total sense as a couple – but their parents are admittedly a little nervous about their kids having sex, because that’s what parents do. Zoe and Jane’s relationship tumult and thoughts of divorce feel more realistic and organic than these things are ever portrayed in novels: they’re two people who don’t recognize the place they’ve arrived in life and they’re scared and nervous and irrational. It’s not a plot device, it’s not some grand weapon to be deployed for maximum drama… it’s the very real, very odd, very scary consideration that the person you’ve decided to spend your life with is maybe a different person than you thought and so do you still want to spend your life with them? This is, to some extent, the same plot that Elizabeth and Andrew are dealing with, although theirs takes most of the novel to bubble to surface. But middle age is a time for considering what’s happened previously and what will happen now, on the downhill slope towards the end of your life (long though it may be).
Straub also adds the curious subplot (that, in the end, rather ties the whole book together) of Zoe, Elizabeth, and Andrew having been in a band together in college – whose fourth member took one of their songs, got famous with it, and died at 27, entering that immortal pantheon of the 27 Club. For one thing, I’m curious to see how many Brooklyn rock bands (my own two bands included) will produce a song that either purports to be “Mistress of Myself” or references it somehow – but for another, I was really impressed at how Straub shows that way in which “fame” of the kind we maybe experience as youths can fade into a fun moment of history… but also how our history, those moments we never quite made peace with in the past, can rise up to swamp us later in life. Lydia’s presence in the book (including a delightfully near-Gothic appearance two-thirds of the way through, in the form of the actress playing her in the mooted biopic) is always secondary but in such a way that some twenty years after she died, she’s still an engine in these people’s lives. The whole thing, with the movie and the life rights and the unresolved personal issues, delighted me and surprised me from top to tail.
In addition to telling great stories, Straub is also one of those wonderfully wise writers who you’re just happy to hear talk about life. Late in the novel, tables having turned several times and relationships that seemed strong now under strain and vice versa, she delivers a page of thoughts about life that, even if you’ve heard it before, feels like it rings so perfectly true. Stuff like “Life was just happenstance and luck, bound together by the desire for order.” It rises above the possibility of cliche because it’s not only true, it’s exactly the right thing to hear at that point in the novel. Straub writes not like a gifted novelist (although obviously she is) but like a life-long friend, always there when you need her. I couldn’t be happier about it.
Rating: 5 out of 5. When it comes down to it, I don’t think I can say it better than Michiko Kakutani does at the end of her glowing New York Times review: “the book looks like designated vacation reading — but it’s just too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach.” Modern Lovers is the perfect summer read, for wherever you are, and it shows Emma Straub at her absolute best. She jumps to a new echelon of writer with this one – and we’re lucky to have such a joyful, intelligent, and keen observer of this modern life.