May Books
Credit: Penguin

Meet the Stricks: widowed matriarch Astrid; her eldest, type-A construction magnate Elliott; middle child Porter, maker of artisanal goat cheese and soon-to-be single mother by choice; and Nicky, the baby of the family and reluctant teen movie star-turned-boho Brooklyn wanderer.

As the story opens, Astrid is awaiting the arrival of Nicky's precocious 13-year-daughter, Cecelia; the hope is that a little time upriver with her grandmother in the idyllic (and fictional) Hudson Valley town of Clapham will help Cecilia shake off the effects of some unspecified city-school trauma.

The fact that Astrid is late to the train station because an old nemesis has just been smeared across the street before her eyes by a runaway school bus might not bode well for that hope, but it does give the book a running start.  Though fans of Emma Straub (The Vacationers, Modern Lovers) will know that her style is more a sort of amiably breezy jog — there may be sex and death, secrets and lies, but it will all be delivered with gentle, unthreatening urbanity and wit.

The Stricks, ensuing chapters soon reveal, have issues like all families do: long-nursed resentments and rivalries, unhappy unions, unshared love affairs. Even as Porter prepares to have a baby on her own, she can't seem to quit the high school boyfriend who chose another wife, and another life. And while Nicky searches for enlightenment in Taos or Tibet, he may be missing what his only child desperately needs: his presence.

Astrid, too, is deep into a covert romance she's been keeping from nearly everyone — as well as decades of guilt for her possibly too-hands-off parenting style — though it's Elliott, financially secure and the father of young twins, who may actually be the most miserable of them all. (He's also the one, incidentally or not, that readers get to know the least.)

Inevitably, some of these threads turn out to be more compelling than others, and the piling on of certain strenuously 2020 topics (trans kids, gentrification, late-in-life sexual fluidity) can feel a little too tidily invoked. But mostly, Straub is in her sweet spot; Like Celeste Ng or Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, she has the gift of finding freshness in familiar narratives through cleverly tweaked archetypes and small, clear observations.

If Adults hardly feels like the strongest of her offerings so far, there's still something undeniably pleasing about the low stakes and easy resolution of it all — a kind of thinking-person's beach read that's maybe all the better for arriving in these strange, landlocked times. B+

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