When I started reading Modern Lovers, I went through the following thought process: Oh no. This book is about rich people who live in Brooklyn. In a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. One of the characters is a Realtor. And another one owns a locavore restaurant. Ugh. And yet, I kept reading… and by the end of the book’s 353 pages, not only was I completely won over, I was sorry to say goodbye.
That’s partly because the book is so incredibly wise about what it’s like to be in your 40s and looking back at the mistakes you’ve made along the way (this, despite the fact that the author is in her mid-30s). And perhaps because I read it at just the right time, August, which is when much of the action takes place, enveloping the reader in that melancholy feeling of summer’s end.
The novel revolves around three couples: Elizabeth and Andrew and their next-door neighbors, Zoe and Jane, as well as their respective teenaged children, Harry and Ruby. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe were in a band together in the early 90s, when they were all students at Oberlin. The band also featured a magnetic young woman named Lydia, who went on to solo success before dying at the age of 27. Now Elizabeth is a successful Realtor in her neighborhood of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, while Zoe and Jane own a popular restaurant. As for Andrew, he may be in his late 40s, but he’s still trying to find himself; thanks to inherited wealth, he’s never had to worry about earning a living. After stints as an ESL teacher and magazine writer, “Andrew thought he’d do an apprenticeship at a butcher shop or with a woodworker. Something with his hands.” Instead, he winds up getting involved with a sort of new-agey community that moves into the neighborhood, led by a charismatic leader who presides over a cultlike group of lithe millennial yoginis.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Andrew’s son Harry and Zoe and Jane’s daughter Ruby appear to be falling for each other, and a movie producer is trying to get a biopic about Lydia off the ground, reminding her surviving bandmates of their lost youth. Straub recounts the interweaving stories in short chapters, making the book fly by as quickly as a perfect late-summer evening. The ending, like autumn, arrives too soon; you want to linger in its world for just a little longer before you have to sober up and return to your adult responsibilities.