Calling into empty rooms

Dear Emma,

Your most recent novel, Modern Lovers (2016), peopled with aging hipsters and angsty teenagers, makes for a breezy summer read.

emma straub

The novel is set in Brooklyn and centers around two middle age couples and their teenage kids’ summer affair. Back in the 80’s, when Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe were at university, they formed a fairly successful rock band, Kitty’s Mustache. Their former friend and band member, Lydia, soon left to pursue a solo career, and hit a huge success with the song “Mistress of Myself”, composed by Elizabeth.

A wild and glamorous rock star, Lydia died young, when she was 27 years old. Now, 20 years later, a film is about to be made about her, and the filmmakers want to be signed over the rights to her most famous song. This is enough to set the old friends off to a re-evaluation of their lives, as they begin to feel wistful for the folly of their youth.

Elizabeth, now a real estate agent, is married to Andrew since their college days. Andrew remains a dilettante, living out of his parents’ fortune. Having shifted from filmmaking to carpentry and yoga, he never found his true vocation. They have a teenage kid, Harry, who is in love with Ruby, Zoe’s daughter.

Zoe, in turn, is married to Jane, and together they run the restaurant Hyacinth. Their business is doing well, but their marriage is facing the crisis of lesbian bed death. As angsty as their teenage kids, and as eager for the rapture of passion, the two couples look back to their youth together and, each in their own way, embark on the perilous waters of midlife crisis. “That was what she wanted — to celebrate and mourn her youth simultaneously.”

Haunted by nostalgia and the raw desire to start everything over, the old friends watch the thread of their lives be slightly torn at the edges, as long-forgotten rivalries and drowned dissatisfactions resurface, disrupting the settled image they had of each other, of their relationships, and of themselves. Harry and Ruby, in the brink of coming of age, mirror their parents’ crisis. The story is told in third person, under multiple different perspectives: each character has his/her plot line, and those are interwoven.

I like the breeziness of your writing style, reminiscent of the 90’s sitcoms and romantic comedies. However, your older characters somewhat lack nuance: their dramas verge on the cliché and are excessively self-centered; Elizabeth’s later sense of betrayal sounds more like an adolescent overstatement; the plotlines are fairly predictable. As a reader, I felt very much like I was going through empty rooms myself, as your narrative shifted from one perspective to another, stuck in a rosy bubble of “rich-first-world-hipster-white-people-problems”. Does every Summer book have to be this bubbly to sell?

Another downside of your novel for me was the fact that your non-white, non-heterosexual characters seem to fall prey to a fear of rough edges, a fear of sticking your fingers more deeply into the open wound that is racism and homofobia. Those characters don’t even have unique voices: all of your characters – albeit their different races and sexual choices and life experiences – just sound the same. They are mostly one-dimensional – and all of them seem to inhabit the same dimension (a kind of “pretending-to-be-post-racial” dimension). It feels almost like you were throwing some color into the mix just because the heart of the story was white. If it appears at all, racism is rather stealthily told about – but never openly shown. Having a lesbian and black main character could have made for a strong narrative. Instead, the characters verge into tokenism: as if your choice was rather a symbolic gesture, enacted only to deter criticism, to sound cleverly hipster, and to check off the diversity box.

Despite those weaknesses, your novel can be a pleasant summer read – and I guess you were not aiming at anything different than that. And as a summer book, I think it has the added appeal of trying to depict a highly literary topic: the idea of mourning one’s youth; of having chosen one path and later regretting it; and the ever recurring longing for second chances. Your novel is, after all, a Summer book about the Autumn of one’s life.

You seem to hint at the idea that the dissatisfactions felt by the aging characters are not so much rooted on the choices they made (and ultimately their marriages), as on the fact that they are stuck in their shared past as a band. Their youth is gone, but they are trapped in it. Their problems lie not in the present itself (their careers, their partners, their children), but in their reluctance to accept the present, and to let go of the past. They are perpetually “calling into the empty rooms” of what they once were. And I think this image will stick with me for a little longer than one Summer, my dear.

Yours truly,

J.


This is what it would be like for the rest of her life – calling into empty rooms and waiting for responses that weren’t coming.

– Emma Straub, Modern Lovers


Kenny Harris.
Kenny Harris.

About the book

  • Riverhead Books, 2016, 368 p. Goodreads;
  • My rating: 3 stars;
  • This book was kindly sent to me by Penguin Books for review.
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