Harry didn’t think much about how his parents had been cool,” Emma Straub writes early on in her wry, engaging comedy of mannerisms Modern Lovers. “It mattered to his daily life significantly less than English muffins, slightly more than the existence of remote-control helicopters.” And why should he? Their coolness was rooted in a time (the early ’90s) and place (Ohio’s Oberlin College) so far removed from the pressing concerns of 21st-century Brooklyn teendom that it might as well be Paleolithic.
For Elizabeth and Andrew, though, the past is very much present; in fact, it’s just come crashing into their seemingly stable marriage like a small, radioactive meteor. Long before the couple settled in New York and had Harry, they were founding members of Kitty’s Mustache, a coed foursome that produced a handful of scrappy lo-fi cassettes and one deathless anthem, “Mistress of Myself.” Twenty years later, “Mistress” has become a mainstay of indie playlists and campus radio stations—and now a Hollywood production company wants to make a movie about Lydia, Kitty’s onetime drummer–turned–cult solo artist. (Lydia had the self-mythologizing foresight to live a wild, well-documented life and die glamorously at 27, hence the interest.)
Andrew balks, for his own closely held reasons. But Elizabeth is happy to sign over her life rights, and so is the band’s fourth member, Zoe—Elizabeth’s best friend and herself the daughter of a famed ’70s disco duo. She lives just next door with her wife, Jane, and their daughter, though that union too is on the rocks: The pair are “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.”
Various discoveries, betrayals, and romantic complications follow, though nothing in Modern’s meandering plot moves with any particular urgency. Instead, Straub lets her characters fall apart and come together in their own messy, refreshingly human ways—always older, sometimes wiser, but never quite done coming of age. A–
MEMORABLE LINE “Lesbianism was one of the things she always assumed she’d try in college, like a tofu scramble, or a cappella.”