Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good escapist fare but ultimately disappointing

This book is like the Real Simple of novels. There’s ample description of beautiful women, real estate and food. Not much happens but every scene is like a photoshoot.

Two middle-aged married couples, Elizabeth and Andrew Marx and Zoe and Jane Kahn-Bennett, share intimately entwined lives in an idyllically suburban-like neighborhood of Brooklyn. Elizabeth is a real estate agent, Zoe and Jane own a fancy neighborhood restaurant and Andrew doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up. Each couple has a teenage kid: Zoe and Jane have a daughter, Ruby, and Elizabeth and Andrew have a son, Harry.

Three of the adults have known each other since college, when they were in a successful band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth member of the band, Lydia, went on to huge fame as a solo act before flaming out with a heroin overdose at 27, an icon in the making.

The action takes places over a single summer in which Zoe and Jane contemplate divorce (for no obvious reason); Ruby and Harry start a romance; and a shark-like Hollywood producer stalks Elizabeth and Andrew to get permission for a biopic of Lydia. Along the way, Andrew falls into the clutches of a self-styled guru and Ruby angsts about her ex-boyfriend and college.

The point of view switches between the six main characters, with Harry and Jane getting the least amount of coverage.

The main focus is relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how they change over time. The budding romance of Ruby and Harry echoes the complex history of their parents’ relationships. We see the adults’ marriages shift and mutate under pressure of events in the far-off past and in the present. A more peripheral theme is aging and how we reconcile our lives in middle-age with the idealistic hopes of our youth.

This book had a good set-up with interesting characters and situations but ultimately, it all seemed to lead nowhere. The potential conflicts fizzled into nothing. I kept anticipating that something more would happen and it never did. Or perhaps the problem was that the resolution of the conflicts was anti-climactic.

The only character that changes at all is Elizabeth, but her story arc wasn’t illustrated clearly enough to make that change emotionally resonant. I would’ve liked to have seen some of her post-book life.

With so many characters and points of view, this novel needed to be more tightly focused to have a strong impact on the reader. Instead it’s a lukewarm unstructured mishmash about which I didn’t care that much. I think it would’ve been better to choose one main character to focus on. There’s just too much going on with so many different relationships, the movie and EEVOLVEment subplots, the cat, Ruby’s ex, etc.

It also seems to suffer from the common affliction of unlikeable characters. Andrew, in particular, had almost no redeemable qualities and wasn’t that believable. Would a life-long New York resident be that naive? Perhaps, if his emotional needs were acute enough to blind him to the obvious, but the author doesn’t show that. Instead Andrew is just an oblivious, entitled jerk.

Also irritating as hell is Ruby, but she gets more of a pass because she’s clearly supposed to be an annoying teenager.

It irked me that there was no clear reason for Zoe and Jane to be contemplating divorce. I felt like there was something missing. The author never really shows us why. They grew apart a little? That seemed to be it. *shrug*

But here’s the thing: I actually enjoyed reading this and read it pretty quickly (admittedly while hoping for something to actually happen). So for all my criticisms, it’s clearly doing something right. I just have the feeling it could’ve been a lot better if the author had tightened it up and set up more coherent story structure and character arcs (any at all would’ve improved things). There’s a lot of good stuff here but the lack of pointed conflict makes for bland oatmeal instead of crunchy, salty bacon. er, or something. Actually, a couple of dramatic things do happen, but they don’t have any impact on the characters. Everyone just keeps plugging along in the same fashion. At most, somebody gets mad. That’s it. Nobody does anything differently because of a dramatic event.

All in all, kind of disappointing given the (inexplicably) good reviews.

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