MODERN LOVERS, by Emma Straub, Riverhead, 356 pp, $26.
Just in time for the beach, Emma Straub has delivered another au courant family-and-friends novel, a perfect encore for fans of 2014’s “The Vacationers.” This time the Brooklynites are staying home in their Victorian houses in Ditmas Park — “a hundred miles from Manhattan (in reality, seven)” — and in two of them, we find the intertwined families of “Modern Lovers.”
Jane and Zoe Kahn-Bennett, partners in a neighborhood bistro called Hyacinth, have “a mixed marriage both racially and religiously speaking — Jane was a Jew from Long Island who’d been taking ulcer medication since she was a teenager, and Zoe was a Martian who never worried about anything, who believed that Chaka Khan played everyone’s sweet sixteen.”
Despite her membership in the rare “black Jew with lesbian moms” demographic, their daughter, Ruby, has failed to get into any of the five colleges to which she applied. She’s not that upset about it. “When was her boxcar-jumping period? Her life as a carny? Reality TV and PETA newsletters had spoiled many things, but they couldn’t kill her dream about being a loose woman in the United States of America.” Jane and Zoe are too distracted by their own problems to worry much about how Ruby’s spending her time the summer after high school graduation. Having devolved from passionate lovers into sex-free roommates and business partners, they are unhappily talking divorce.
Just down the block is Zoe’s best friend, Elizabeth, her husband, Andrew, and their teenage son, Harry. Elizabeth is a real estate agent who loves her job, Andrew is an aging trustafarian who doesn’t do much of anything, and Harry is very innocent for his age, though a summer romance with the “loose woman” next door is about to change all that. Harry and Ruby’s entanglement is almost genetically ordained by the very complicated relationships among their parents.
“In ancient times, before Brooklyn and before kids, Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe had been in a band, and in addition to playing many, many shows in dingy basements and recording their songs into a pink plastic cassette deck, they had sold exactly one of their songs, ‘Mistress of Myself,’ to their friend and former bandmate Lydia Greenbaum, who then dropped out of college, dropped the Greenbaum, got signed by a record label, released the song, became famous, had her hair and clothes copied by all the kids on St. Marks Place . . . shaved her head, became a Buddhist, and then dropped dead of an overdose at twenty-seven, just like Janis and Jimi and Kurt.”
Now there’s movie interest in Lydia, which requires that the friends sign away their “life rights.” Zoe doesn’t much care, Elizabeth’s willing to be convinced, but Andrew is dead set against it, ostensibly because he doesn’t want to see their past commercialized, but also because there are secrets about what went on back at Oberlin he would rather not see dug up. Meanwhile, he’s started hanging out at the new yoga studio in their neighborhood, where there are “cosmic trance” dance parties that go on till 3 a.m. “There were unbelievable-looking girls everywhere in the house, making juice and dancing and kicking up into handstands, giving you a peek of their stomachs and underwear all over the place, and it only made Andrew feel like a latter-day Humbert Humbert, or like a more Jewish version of Sting.” Though he manages to avoid infidelity, Andrew does develop a crush — on Dave, the charismatic leader of the group, who has a little business proposal for him.
With all the writers who live in Brooklyn, we read a lot of books set in its neighborhoods. The bar is high, the field is crowded, and the demographic represented in “Modern Lovers” gets a lot of coverage. Emma Straub’s particular take is wry without being snarky, and smart without being affected. With cleverness and warmth to spare, her aim is to entertain, and she breezily succeeds.