In an epilogue to Emma Straub’s charming new book, we learn that the story’s teenage hero, Harry Marx, ends up going to Brown University, where he proposes to submit a novel as his honors thesis: “The novel will be inspired by the tropes of classic love stories such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ set in modern-day Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, with two neighboring families falling in and out of love simultaneously.”
Put aside Harry’s plans to embroider his story with some ideas from philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and you have a perfect description of Straub’s own novel “Modern Lovers”: a “somewhat old-fashioned and straightforward” story that “both celebrates the youthful embrace of reckless love and the way that older people struggle with those same feelings some decades down the line.”
The setup for “Modern Lovers” is surprisingly similar to the one Straub used in her 2014 best-seller, “The Vacationers.” Once again, the novel features several couples trying to sort out their relationships: one longtime husband and wife (in this case, Harry’s parents, Elizabeth and Andrew) and their good friends, a gay couple who are also trying to figure out the arithmetic of their marriage (in this case, Elizabeth and Andrew’s college schoolmate Zoe and her wife, Jane, who have a teenage daughter, Ruby, who will become involved with Harry).
It’s a loose variation on those Hollywood comedies of remarriage like “The Philadelphia Story” or “The Awful Truth,” which, as scholar Stanley Cavell pointed out in his insightful book “Pursuits of Happiness,” often seemed loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
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However familiar the overall dynamics of “Modern Lovers” might be, Straub writes with such verve and sympathetic understanding of her characters that we barely notice. Reading this novel has all the pleasures of reading one of Anne Tyler’s compelling family portraits, but transported from Baltimore to Brooklyn, peopled with aging hipsters (instead of perennially middle-aged folks) and doused with a sense of the absurdities of contemporary life.
In these pages, Straub gives us lots of sharp, unfiltered snapshots of a Brooklyn in the throes of transition from “a city next door, with its own rhythms and heartbeats” to a borough full of Manhattan transfers and yuppies, a place where there are now tree guards and block parties with bouncy castles for the kids.
As a real estate agent, Elizabeth is acutely aware of these changes; she and her friends were pioneers in Ditmas Park, “planting the flag before the neighborhood had any decent restaurants or a good public school or a bar with a cocktail menu.” Zoe and Jane run Hyacinth, a popular restaurant, while Andrew — who has family money and has hopped from one career to another — starts spending more and more time at a new yoga commune that has opened several blocks away.
Even as Harry is falling in love with Ruby — delighted that his feelings are reciprocated (at least in some measure) by the coolest girl in school — both sets of their parents are skidding into full-blown midlife crises as they approach the dreaded big 5-0.
Eons ago, when Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe were at Oberlin, they were in a band together, and news has recently arrived that their fourth bandmate, Lydia — the one who went on to fame and adulation and an early death at 27 — is going to be the subject of a movie. This news causes both Elizabeth (who wrote the hit song that made Lydia’s career) and Andrew (who seems to have had a complicated, possibly romantic relationship with Lydia) to re-evaluate the arc of their lives: their choices, their privileged bourgeois existence, even their seemingly cozy marriages.
Such subject matter might sound trite and sitcomy, and many of the plot complications Straub tosses in her characters’ paths verge on the clichéd, too: a missing cat named Iggy Pop; Ruby’s and Harry’s — or rather, their parents’ — worries about the SATs; and the “Big Chill”-like resurfacing of ancient college insecurities and rivalries.
In her capable hands, however, even the most hackneyed occasions are transformed into revealing or comic moments. Straub deftly notes myriad ways Harry and Ruby mirror — and rebel against — their parents’ behavior, and the many ways their teenage passions remind their aging parents of their own youthful follies. She captures the jagged highs and lows of adolescence with freshness and precision, and the decades-long relationships of old college friends with a wry understanding of how time has both changed (and not changed) old dynamics.
Like “The Vacationers,” this entertaining novel takes place during one momentous summer, and with its sunny cover and May 31 publication date, 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” by Emma Straub (356 pages; Riverhead Books; $26)