Book Review – Modern Lovers
Published by Riverhead Books on May 31st 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Chick Lit
From the New York Times‒bestselling author of The Vacationers, a smart, highly entertaining novel about a tight-knit group of friends from college—their own kids now going to college—and what it means to finally grow up well after adulthood has set in.
Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth. But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch (of sexuality, independence, and the ineffable alchemy of cool) to their own offspring.
Back in the band’s heyday, Elizabeth put on a snarl over her Midwestern smile, Andrew let his unwashed hair grow past his chin, and Zoe was the lesbian all the straight women wanted to sleep with. Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance in the same neighborhood deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease. But the summer that their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives suddenly begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose—about themselves, and about the famous fourth band member who soared and fell without them—can never be reclaimed.
Straub packs wisdom and insight and humor together in a satisfying book about neighbors and nosiness, ambition and pleasure, the excitement of youth, the shock of middle age, and the fact that our passions—be they food, or friendship, or music—never go away, they just evolve and grow along with us.
I really wanted to love Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers for a number of reasons. First of all, the title Modern Lovers hints that this will be a sexy and entertaining read. Second, it has been on pretty much every 2016 Must-Read book list that I’ve come across. And third, just look at that bright, fun cover – all by itself, it’s practically guaranteeing a light, fun read.
Sadly, as ready as I was to fall in love with Modern Lovers, it ended up just being an average read for me. I liked it enough to finish it, but overall I found it to be somewhat underwhelming, especially when compared with all of the hype surrounding the book. Maybe all that hype had built up unrealistically high expectations in my mind, but I was fully expecting this to be one of my favorite reads of 2016 and it didn’t come close.
Let me start off by mentioning a few things that I did like though because the book definitely has aspects that I enjoyed.
1. I love that it was set in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. New York City is my favorite place in the whole world, but I get so distracted by all that Manhattan has to offer that I have yet to make it across the Brooklyn Bridge to visit Brooklyn. Modern Lovers makes me want to hop on the train and head up there right now and do just that.
2. Short, easy to read chapters. Even as I struggled with whether or not I actually liked the book, the chapters were so easy to breeze through that my “Okay, I’ll give it one more chapter to see if I change my mind” quickly turned into “Oh wait, I’m already at the end!”
Okay, so on to what I had issues with…
I tend to enjoy books where I can connect with the characters in some way. I consider myself to be the target audience for this book as I am in the same age range as Elizabeth, Zoe, Andrew, and Jill, and I thought that I would totally be able to relate to their post-college lives and their ever-evolving friendships with one another. Although I did enjoy how Straub drew each character as flawed and therefore completely realistic, I just unfortunately found them all to be, for the most part, unlikeable and because I didn’t like most of them, it was hard to care about or connect with anything they were going through. For me, there was nothing sexy or fun about these “Modern Lovers.” Elizabeth, a real estate agent, seemed like she could only really relate to the lives of her friends and neighbors in terms of what kind of real estate deals she could make if they were to break up and need to sell their home and buy new ones. Zoe, while more likeable and more relatable than Elizabeth, was incredibly frustrating at times because of the unnecessary drama that she seemed to be creating for herself and Jill. Andrew, by far, was my least favorite character in the book. He was a walking hippie-wannabe mid-life crisis and I just wanted to scream at him to go get a job. The only adult character I even remotely cared for was Jill, who I did sympathize with because as the only one of the group who didn’t go to Oberlin College, she is on the outside looking in a lot of times and it can be awkward for her. It makes her more vulnerable and more interesting than the other three characters.
About the only thing I found interesting about this group of adults was the drama regarding their old college band. One of their former members, Lydia, went on to become a famous singer but ultimately died at the age of 27, thus joining the infamous ’27 Club’ of other famous musicians who tragically died at the same age (Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, to name a couple). Someone wants to make a movie about Lydia and her life, so there’s a lot of drama surrounding the face that Andrew, Zoe, and Elizabeth have to give permission to use their music and for there to be characters modelled after their lives as members of the band. I actually found this part of the story so interesting and Andrew, Zoe, and Elizabeth so much more interesting as these rock-n-rolling college students that I found myself wishing that there was a book about them instead of these humdrum middle-aged versions of themselves.
Okay, so I clearly didn’t care for the adults in Modern Lovers. That said, however, I will add that I very much enjoyed seeing their children interact. Ruby, who is Jill and Zoe’s daughter, and Harry, son of Elizabeth and Andrew, have a budding maybe/maybe not romance that begins when they end up in an SAT prep course together. Harry is a sweet kid, naïve for his age, and in that sense, may perhaps be the most likeable character in the entire novel. Ruby is much more experienced and takes it upon herself to educate Harry in the area of romance. While her motives and how much she truly likes Harry might be unclear, their flirtation and budding relationship does stand in refreshing contrast to the mundane middle-aged drama of their parents. Seeing what was going to happen between Ruby and Harry was probably what kept me reading until the end. For me, this probably would have been a stronger read if the narrative point of view had just been through the eyes of Ruby and Harry, maybe with the parents just on the periphery. Having the story filtered through 6 points of view was a little much for me.
While this was ultimately a disappointing read for me because it didn’t live up to all of the hype, I would still recommend Modern Lovers to anyone who is looking for an easy read, perhaps for their vacation. I clearly did not connect with these characters and their lives, but perhaps you will.
Rating: 3 stars