Emma Straub blends leisurely entertainment with sophisticated literary exploration in her third novel, Modern Lovers. As in her previous novel, The Vacationers, she introduces a pair of intimately connected families as they soldier on through a summer of upheaval. Straub assembles a charming cast of characters to explore the anxieties, limits, and importance of midlife friendships and romances.
Elizabeth Marx sells real estate. Andrew Marx has a trust. They married after meeting in college, and nearly two decades later, they remain close friends with friend Zoe. In college, along with Lydia, they formed a band. Only Lydia became a notable musician, although she also eventually died of an overdose. Zoe and her wife Jane live on the same street as the Marx family in Ditmas Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for suburban single-family Victorian homes. Zoe and Jane are also partners in Hyacinth, a neighborhood restaurant serving hipster nouveau cuisine. As the novel opens, their daughter, Ruby, is graduating from high school. Despite her expensive private school, Ruby has intentionally bungled her college applications and faces few prospects for the coming year. Her listlessness contrasts with Elizabeth and Andrew’s studious son Harry, who, with a year left in high school, expects have to have his choice of a top tier college.
Straub presents appealing, relatable characters in the pleasant environment of suburban Brooklyn. Ditmas Park is far from the brownstones of typical Brooklyn novels, but it shares a quiet suburban sensibility recognizable in towns nationwide. The characters are all people we all wish we could be—wealthy, successful, comfortable. This comfort is a trick. Straub seduces the reader into this world in order to rip it apart and expose its psychological truths.
The friendship between Zoe and Elizabeth drives the action. Their intimacy provides both of them with strength, but it also threatens their marriages. At the start of the novel, Zoe and Jane have been growing apart. When Zoe’s therapist suggests divorce, it is Elizabeth’s opinion Zoe needs. Elizabeth is supportive. She leverages her position as a real estate agent to show Zoe what life could be like living outside the home she has shared with her Jane. Zoe’s desire for divorce also sets in motion Elizabeth’s inevitable confrontation of her own marital insecurities. By linking their friendship to the action of the plot, Straub disguises her commentary on friendship and avoids lecturing the reader or slowing the pace with her observations.
As the story develops, Elizabeth appears to choose her friend over her husband. After fighting with Andrew, she interrupts Zoe and Jane’s romantic getaway. Jane is jealous once more. Straub seems to be testing the limits of female friendship, suggesting that women sometimes face perilous choices between their friends and their domestic partners. For Straub, people have to balance two kinds of competing relationships.
Straub includes a contrasting relationship: the toxic one between Elizabeth and Lydia. Their friendship is cut short by Lydia’s death, but through memories and Lydia’s journals, Straub explores the opposite experience of a supportive friendship. Lydia seduces Elizabeth’s boyfriend and then exploits the song Elizabeth wrote. Even from the grave, Lydia is able to upend Elizabeth’s life when her old journals surface. It takes Elizabeth two decades and the entire novel to recognize how awful Lydia is as a friend.
Concern over whether or not nostalgia and common experience justify the continuation of a friendship generates tension in the novel. These people share history:
They were old friends—best friends, really, though Elizabeth might not say that in front of Zoe for fear that she would laugh at the phrase for being juvenile. They’d lived together after college way back in the Stone Age in this very same house, sharing the rambling Victorian with Elizabeth’s boyfriend (now husband) and two guys who had lived in their co-op at Oberlin. It was always nice to carry a big bowl of something homemade over to Zoe’s house, because it felt like being back in that potluck-rich, money poor twilight known as one’s twenties.
The long duration of Elizabeth and Zoe’s friendship provides a source of comfort, but eventually the past haunts their present. As these relationships evolve over time, the novel attempts to explain why and how friendships can endure.
Straub navigates these complex relationships by shifting the point of view in each chapter. This structure creates sympathy for characters like Andrew and Jane who are outside Elizabeth and Zoe’s friendship, and Straub executes the shifts well, providing the right character’s perspective at the right moment to keep the plot moving forward.
Modern Lovers grapples with a truth of middle age: balancing our relationships can be a perilous task. Domestic bliss can only provide so much satisfaction, and it is unlikely that those domestic relationships can fulfill every emotional need. Friendship has its own limits. Modern Lovers skillfully captures the complexities of relationships often taken for granted, and Straub reminds us that happiness together is better than happiness alone.