When do the wheels come off the wagon? In your 20s, after a short-lived stint in a rock band? In your 30s, after your kids have sucked the life out of you? In your 40s, after you acquire grey hair and a real estate licence? How about when your almost-adult child starts having sex with your best friend’s almost-adult child? Or maybe it’s when you, nearing 50, find a guru? And the guru turns out to be a con artist?
Sigh. It’s all of the above in Emma Straub’s witty third novel Modern Lovers. Elizabeth and Andrew are a married couple in their late 40s living in Brooklyn, a few doors down from their former college band mate, Zoe, and her wife, Jane. Along with their college friend Lydia, their band, Kitty’s Mustache (a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine), first sang what later became a monster hit called ‘Mistress of Myself’ (Sense and Sensibility FTW), one of those anthemic, eternally meaningful songs whose lyrics people tattoo on their inner arms.
Lydia died glamorously of a drug overdose at 27, leaving the remaining three band members to round the corner on hipster senescence without her. There’s a saying about beautiful women and champion athletes dying two deaths. To that, I might add this: To be once young and briefly famous and painfully of-the-moment and then morph into regular-people middle age is rather more insulting, as if your whole life is the worst Instagram fail.
And this is where we find the novel’s 40-something friends, past millennial hipness and on into hot flashes. Zoe and Jane own a restaurant; their daughter, Ruby, is sullen, sexual and terribly chic. Their marriage has traveled into the chill zone of lesbian bed death. Meantime, Elizabeth, a rebellious rocker in college, has traded her guitar for a career selling real estate in Ditmas Park, in one of those enclaves where you brew your own kombucha or risk the neighbors’ disdain. Her husband, Andrew, an aimless trustafarian, perceives himself as a brave escapee from the limestone canyons of Park Avenue. In reality, he’s a dilettante who meanders from career to career, working vaguely at a lifestyle magazine for Brooklyn fathers and seeking fulfillment through cinematography classes and carpentry. At one point, his guru—Dave, distinctive mainly for his large, shiny teeth—remarks on the artful imperfection of the shelf Andrew is fabricating: “This is beautiful, man. Wabi-sabi, right?” It is, in fact, not an example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese term for artful imperfection and decay. It’s just sloppy woodwork.
The teenage children begin an affair. Zoe and Jane’s restaurant burns down suspiciously. (But their marriage is simultaneously and magically rekindled, apparently, by a good Chinese meal.) Elizabeth, succumbing to the entreaties of a stealthy Hollywood producer, signs away her and Andrew’s rights to a movie in the works about the mythic Lydia. (The producer describes it as “ ‘Ray’ meets ‘Sid and Nancy’ minus the Sid, meets ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ only the coal miner is an orthopedic surgeon from Scarsdale.’ ”) Elizabeth learns that Andrew may have had sex with Lydia when they were all in college, a discovery that sends their marriage into some sort of cliff-of-divorce drama that I can’t really fathom. Why the huge sense of betrayal? It wasn’t last week, after all. Does anyone remember who anyone slept with in college? (And if you do, don’t email me and burst my bubble.)
Perhaps these Brooklyn couples in their postmodern Peyton Place—one with nutritional yeast and cosmic trance nights and talk of ayahuasca retreats—are more sensitive than, say, most of the married couples in Tolstoy, Updike, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence or Jackie Collins. Or even, I would venture to say, Dr. Seuss.
Modern Lovers hurries to tie up its loose ends, and the interwoven climaxes seem sludgy. The final chapter employs a lazy literary device, a series of announcements (a notice in the New York Times weddings section, trivia from one character’s IMDB page, a précis of a thesis proposal, postings from foodie websites) that would seem more at home in the closing credits of Animal House. (Bluto becomes a United States senator!) But up until then, Modern Lovers is a wise, sophisticated romp through the pampered middle-aged neuroses of urban softies.