Back in the 1990s, a group of friends at the granola-crunchy, art-loving Oberlin College form a band called Kitty’s Mustache. The musicians are Elizabeth (the lead singer), who is best friends with Zoe, dating Andrew, and for whatever reason hated by drummer Lydia. The band doesn’t really go anywhere, but when Lydia asks Elizabeth for the rights to their most popular song, “Mistress of Myself,” they find an accord. Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew go on to be regular schmoes, and Lydia becomes riot grrrl famous and then dies at 27, like most well-known musicians.
Now, Andrew and Elizabeth are married and almost 50. They live down the block from Zoe and her wife, Jane. Each couple has one child. They’re part of gentrified Brooklyn and don’t see a problem with that, so long as they feel like they’re involved in the neighborhood. But Andrew is acting weird about a hippy-yoga-meditation clubhouse he’s joined, and Zoe is thinking about divorcing Jane despite being tied up in a restaurant that they own where they both work. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Andrew’s son has the hots for Zoe and Jane’s daughter.
I read Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (she/her) with Biscuit, and to be honest I had a hard time coming up with discussion questions. Both families come from money, so there’s no struggle with necessities. The children go to a private school, and though Zoe and Jane’s daughter purposefully sabotaged her college applications, things seem pretty run of the mill. Yes, Andrew is being weird. Yes, everyone thinks about how cool they were when they were in college. Everything was predictable if you just envision privileged people.
The synopsis calls Modern Lovers “seductively funny and sharp,” but I felt mostly ho-hum toward it. Why? I wasn’t emotionally invested in any character, given their financial security nets and lack of drug or mental health concerns, so there’s very little tension. The tension Straub attempts to add is whether Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe — the remaining members of Kitty’s Mustache — will completely sign away their rights to “Mistress of Myself” so a movie studio can make a bio-pic of Lydia and include the song. Elizabeth and Zoe say yes, Andrew says no. Tension, tension, tension. It’s crackling in the air!
Plus, Straub kept adding new information to characters that was pertinent earlier on. I thought Elizabeth was hustling as a real estate agent, keeping her family together while her husband refused to work, until several chapters in we learn Andrew is a trust-fund baby who did stuff growing up like order out for scrambled eggs and doesn’t need a job. He can pursue whatever, like a poster on a lamp post for a hippy-yoga-meditation clubhouse.
Go ahead a skip this one. It’s 353 pages in the hardback edition, with a plot worthy of a novella.