Emma Straub’s new novel Modern Lovers picks up somewhere in the anthropological vicinity of her last novel, The Vacationers but a vast ocean away. The Vacationers took a New York family with teenagers, frustrated parents and a gay couple to Mallorca to experience a series of crises. In Modern Lovers, the family – teenagers, frustrated parents, a gay couple — remain at home in Brooklyn to experience their own problems. (See my book club blueprint and review of The Vacationers here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/)
The adults in Modern Lovers used to be cool – real cool – rock band cool. But now that they are approaching 50, and their children are dating, or hooking up, or are just hanging out together having sex in public places, the adults find they aren’t quite so cool anymore. At least not in the eyes of their kids.
Elizabeth and Andrew are the married parents of Harry, not the most popular kid in school. These two, plus ultra-fabulous Zoe were in “the band: Kitty’s Mustache” with Lydia — now deceased, a member of the 27-Club, and subject of an upcoming biopic which Elizabeth and Zoe favor and Andrew opposes. Zoe is married to Jane and they have a daughter who IS the coolest girl in school, Ruby. Jane and Zoe own a restaurant called Hyacinth in Brooklyn. Andrew’s a rich kid who doesn’t have anything really useful to do with himself other than hang around a sketchy yoga-ish flop house called EVOLVEment run by a huckster named Dave, and Elizabeth (the real talent behind the band) is a real estate agent.
Modern Lovers is the second book in two months I’ve read about the changes in Brooklyn, and I’m reading another right now. Look for a post next week about SweetBitter by Stephanie Danler. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney explored many of the same family themes in The Nest, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-nest-by-cynthia-daprix-sweeney/. So maybe there’s something happening in Brooklyn that makes it a microcosm for what modern writers feel the need to share. Or maybe Brooklyn is where the modern writers live.
They were old friends — best friends, really, though Elizabeth might not say that in front of Zoe for fear that she would laugh at the phrase for being juvenile. They’d lived together after college way back in the Stone Age in this very same house, sharing the rambling Victorian with Elizabeth’s boyfriend (now husband) and two guys who had lived in their co-op at Oberlin. It was always nice to carry a big bowl of something homemade over to Zoe’s house, because it felt like being back in that potluck-rich, money-poor twilight zone known as one’s twenties. Ditmas Park was a hundred miles from Manhattan (in reality, seven), a tiny little cluster of Victorian houses that could have existed anywhere in the United States, with Prospect Park’s parade grounds to the north and Brooklyn College to the south. Their other friends from school were moving into walk-up apartments in the East Village or into beautiful brownstones in Park Slope, on the other side of the vast green park, but the three of them had fallen in love with the idea of a house house, and so there they were, sandwiched between old Italian ladies and the projects.
It seems as if everything is coming to a head in the lives of Modern Lovers: 50 right here, Ruby and Harry’s high school graduation, Andrew’s midlife crisis, and Zoe and Jane’s marital woe. And just at this moment, a movie producer shows up asking for the rights to their life stories so she can make a film about Lydia, a sort of Janis Joplin-Britney Spears character best known for an uberhit called “Mistress of Myself,” written by Elizabeth. Not only does the producer appear, but she brings an actress who looks so much like Lydia, that Andrew faints.
I quite enjoyed Modern Lovers. Ms. Straub writes cleanly, clearly, and with an almost throw-back narrative style that I appreciate. There are characters of various generations facing familiar scenarios and problems, a discussion of which will be of great interest to a wide variety of book clubs. And the food options — since Jane and Zoe own a restaurant — is wonderful
I would set a table with a white tablecloth and a centerpiece of hyacinths, in honor of Jane and Zoe’s restaurant.
The mentions of food are numerous. Brownies, souffles, croissants, fried chicken, frozen pizza and more are on menus at various times. I would serve one of the summer menus mentioned early on: A salad with watermelon radish and avocado. Fresh pasta with asparagus pesto. Dessert with strawberry and peppercorns.
I’ve never made asparagus pesto, so here’s a recipe from Food&Wine: that looks easy enough http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/fresh-asparagus-pesto
And my favorite chef, Ina Garten aka the Barefoot Contessa, has a delicious dessert recipe for strawberries with pepper: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/strawberries-with-balsamic-vinegar-recipe.html
There’s actually a musical group called The Modern Lovers that featured a couple of guys who went on to the Cars and Talking Heads. Protopunk. Not my bag.
Musician-singer Liz Phair actually went to Oberlin College and is about the age that Lydia would have been. I would play her music.
Zoe – easiest to me. Lisa Bonet, I pictured her all through the reading.
Jane – Kathryn Hahn
Ruby – Amanda Sternberg
Elizabeth – this could be anyone from Tina Fey to Jennifer Aniston. I envisioned Elizabeth Banks.
Andrew – Steve Carrell? Ben Affleck?
Harry – Logan Lerman