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Posts Tagged ‘Emma Straub’

Emma Straub’s new novel is as bright as a new copper penny, and you should pick it up immediately.  All Adults Here (Riverhead, e-galley) — the title is ironic — reminds us that “adulting” can be challenging at any age. Astrid Strick, a 68-year-old widow, gets a wake-up call when she witnesses an empty school bus run over a long-time acquaintance in their Hudson Valley town. She reappraises some of her past choices as a parent and decides to let her family in on a secret “because there are always more school buses.” Her kids have secrets, too, as does granddaughter Cecelia, who is 13 and comes to stay with Astrid after an incident at her New York City school. Cecilia’s new friend is August, who is thinking he might really be Robin. Straub is so good at depicting teenagers, and Cecelia and August are my favorite characters, along with middle daughter Porter, who has yet to tell her mother she’s pregnant via a sperm bank. Surveying herself in a mirror, she reassures herself that she is a “grown-ass woman.” So what if she’s still fooling around with her high school boyfriend, who is very much married with children. Straub writes with wry humor, and her ensemble slice-of-life narrative flows easily. Although each of the Stricks is idiosyncratic in their ambitions and regrets, they are every family with long memories of childhood roles and rivalries.

The first wave of beach books promises sun-kissed days and sandy toes. Mary Kay Andrews’ Hello, Summer (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) mixes small-time secrets, scandals, mystery and romance into an appealing froth with interesting undercurrents. When reporter Conley Hawkins’ exciting new job in D.C. ends before it’s even begun, she backtracks from Atlanta to stay with her grandmother in her sleepy hometown  And once again she’s working for her older sister at the struggling family weekly known for its old-timey gossip column, “Hello, Summer.” But then a local congressman and war hero dies in a single-car accident, and Conley’s investigative reporting skills kick in. No fake news here.

“Fake it till you make it.” Jennifer Weiner takes on social media big-time in Big Summer (Atria, e-galley). Plus-size Instagram influencer Daphne Berg is surprised when high-school frenemy Drue Cavanaugh asks her to be her maid-of-honor at her posh society wedding to a reality star on Cape Cod. Their public falling-out went viral years ago. Still, Daphne never could resist being in beautiful Drue’s orbit, and the wedding’s a chance to up her own media profile and gain new followers. The opulence of the pre-wedding festivities is indeed picture-perfect, and Daphne does her best to ignore the tensions among the bridal party. Then she finds a dead body in a hot-tub. Shades of a Susan Isaac novel — not a bad thing, just a bit jarring as Daphne goes all Nancy Drew. Big fun.

The sudden death of literary lion Bill Sweeney shocks his three grown daughters, bringing them home to Southport, Conn.  But another surprise awaits gallery owner Liza, artist Maggie and attorney Jill — there’s a fourth Sweeney sister. Reporter Serena Tucker recently took a DNA test that revealed Bill Sweeney is also her father, although she only knew him as the famous author who was a childhood neighbor. I kept thinking that I already had read Lian Dolan’s The Sweeney Sisters (William Morrow, ARC), or seen it as a TV movie, but it was just pleasantly familiar, right down to the reading of the will and the search for a missing manuscript. Dolan does a nice job sorting out the sisters and reconfiguring their relationships, but most of the drama is in the set up. No surprise: All’s well that ends well.

 

 

 

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sweetbitterStephanie Danler’s first novel arrives like the tangy summer cocktail you didn’t know you wanted but can’t stop drinking. Sweetbitter (Knopf, digital galley) turns out to be the perfect title for this coming-of-age, living-in-New York tale, a heady concoction of youthful yearning and impulse.

Coffee-shop waitress Tess, 22, arrives in New York in 2006 and gets a job as a backwaiter at a landmark restaurant, where she is yelled at by the chef, hazed by her fellows and mentored by the older server Simone. She learns about fine wine and good food, from the seductiveness of figs to the aggressiveness of winter lettuces. She is just as hungry for experience, and indulges in after-hour drinks and drugs with the staff, and despite Simone’s warnings, falls for bartender Jake. “I could tell you to leave him alone. That he’s complicated, not in a sexy way, but in a damaged way. I could tell you damage isn’t sexy, it’s scary. You’re still young enough to think every experience will improve you in some long-term way, but it isn’t true. How do you suppose damage gets passed on?”

Tess pays no attention and gives into desire, consequences be damned. Danler writes the same way, giving voice to the reckless invincibility of being young and in love with love and life. When a buttoned-down college acquaintance shows up at the restaurant and snobbishly suggests that Tess be his table’s waitress, Tess hides behind a polite smile.  “I wanted to say,  My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t understand.”

Or you could read Sweetbitter.

modernWhen do you grow up? What rite of passage marks you as an adult? College graduation?  Buying a house? Marriage? Parenthood? Or is it the first time you have sex? Or how about when you first find out your kids are having sex? Two of the three couples in Emma Straub’s new novel Modern Lovers (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley) mull over such mid-life mysteries as neighbors in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. The other couple — teens Ruby and Harry — are too busy obeying hormones to ask anything beyond, “Do you have something?”

Harry’s parents — Elizabeth and Andrew — were classmates at Oberlin with one of Ruby’s moms, Zoe, and they had a band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth bandmate, Lydia, broke away and soared to fame with a song Elizabeth wrote, “Mistress of Myself,” then died of a heroin overdose at 27. Now, 20 years later, the past comes calling when Hollywood wants to make a biopic of  Lydia, and needs the other three to sign over rights. That’s ok with Zoe, who is coping with Ruby’s moods and with her faltering marriage to Jane, the chef  at their trendy restaurant Hyacinth. Elizabeth, now a real estate agent, thinks the movie idea is cool and is surprised that her trust-fund husband Andrew is so adamantly against it. Andrew, who has never had a meaningful job, wants to put life on pause while he sorts things out, so he gets involved with a local yoga/meditation commune. Meanwhile, rebellious Ruby, who has just graduated from high school, fools around with mild-mannered Harry, who can’t believe his luck.

Straub is a sharp, observant writer, and Modern Lovers is a diverting comedy of manners much like her last novel, The Vacationers. But the characters aren’t nearly as interesting and cool as they think they are — Andrew is especially annoying — and their meanderings don’t really add up to much. At one point, a marriage counselor asks Zoe and Jane why they aren’t asking each other the hard questions, and they reply that things are ok and they don’t want to rock the boat for fear it might topple. Mmm. Modern Lovers could do with more rocking and rolling. Instead, it glides along, easily handling the gentle swells of modern middle age.

 

 

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savedateYou would think that the world of a wedding florist would be all hearts and flowers, sweetness and light. Think again. In Mary Kay Andrews’ new beach-worthy tale Save the Date (HarperCollins, paperback ARC), heroine Cara Kryzik faces a bunch of thorny problems. Her distant military father, the Colonel, is threatening to call in the loan she used to get her business Bloom established in downtown Savannah. He doesn’t understand that Cara, who divorced her cheating hubby a year ago, has had some unexpected expenses, like a broken cooler that ruins a wedding’s worth of flowers and a busted AC that the cranky landlord won’t fix. A couple of planned society weddings will pay the bills, if they aren’t derailed by a controlling MOB (mother of the bride) or a silver-tongued rival florist trying to ruin her reputation. But why is her best pal and assistant Bert so cranky all of a sudden? Cara feels besieged on all fronts, especially after handsome contractor Jack Finnerty dognaps her beloved pooch Poppy, mistaking her for the lookalike goldendoodle left to him by his ex.

But Andrews’ heroines aren’t ones to wilt in the face of adversity, and Cara’s no exception. She’s good at her job and with people (minus the occasional man), and she’s determined to grow her business, even it means staying up all night perfecting a bouquet or raiding her garden for just the right greenery. And so what if she’s an Army brat who lacks a Southern accent? No one’s going to put Cara in a corner, at least not for long.

Readers may well predict that Cara is headed for a happy ending — and a likely happy ever-after with Jack — but it’s her amusingly bumpy journey that will have them flipping pages. Highlights include a side trip to isolated Cumberland Island to talk a runaway bride down from a tree, the challenge to design an industrial-chic Goth wedding, a satisying show-down with her conniving competitor, and a plot to bamboozle Jack’s harpy of an ex.

Save the Date is one of my favorite MKA books, along with Spring Break, Hissy Fit and the Savannah series, but I am admittedly biased. Mary Kay Andrews, aka Kathy Trocheck, is a longtime friend and supporter of Caroline Cousins. It also happens that Cousin Meg is a wedding florist, both in the CC books and real life, which is how come I know a stargazer lily from lily of the valley and how to green in a centerpiece and wire a boutonniere in an emergency.

vacationersThe Posts are not the Griswolds, whose madcap misadventures are chronicled in the National Lampoon vacation movies. The Posts are much more believable, and so is their two-week summer trip to Mallorca in Emma Straub’s diverting The Vacationers (Penguin, purchased e-book). Still, there are enough misunderstandings, miscommunications and mishaps among family and friends to make this a pleasing comedy of manners, similar to the novels of Elinor Lipman and Jennifer Close.

Franny and Jim are supposed to be celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, but Jim recently lost his job as a magazine editor due to an indiscretion that may yet cost him his marriage. Franny, a travel and food writer, hasn’t decided yet, as she confides in her old friend Charles, visiting with his husband Lawrence. Also on the trip are eldest son Bobby, a Miami real estate agent, and his older girfriend, Carmen, a personal trainer. Daughter Sylvia is getting ready to go off to college and senses the tension between her parents, but what she really wants to do in Mallorca is lose her virginity. Her sexy Spanish tutor holds promise.

And so, during meals around the table, dips in the pool, outings to the beach and games of Scrabble, the likeable characters reveal themselves to readers and one another. Carmen surprises Franny with her willingness to help with meals. Bobby disconcerts his sister when he takes her to a nightclub after a fight with Carmen. Lawrence tries not be jealous of the attention Charles showers on Franny as he anxiously awaits an e-mail from New York. Jim is so jealous of Franny flirting with a retired tennis pro that he enlists the help of a British cyclist to follow her. Sylvia thinks everyone is lame, except for her tutor, whose good looks outweigh his taste in music.

All of the characters are well-observed, but my heart goes out to Sylvia, who is working her way through the Brontes. “She’d read all of Jane Austen that year — Austen was good, but when you told people you liked Pride and Prejudice, they expected you to be all sunshine and wedding veils, and Sylvia preferred the rainy moors. The Brontes weren’t afraid to let someone die of consumption, which Sylvia respected.”

 

 

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After a sudden tragedy jolts young Elsa Anderson’s happy life at her family’s summer playhouse in 1930s Wisconsin, her father tells her that she has two choices. She can either tell people the truth about her sister Hildy, or she can pretend everything is okay.

” ‘Just like in the play,’ he said. “You’re an actress now.’ Despite it all, Elsa could swear there was praise in her father’s voice.  It was good for all of them to remember that there were actors in the world, people whose job it was to pretend. For Elsa, there was no other option after that moment — she saw her future as clearly as she saw the water of Green Bay. Even if she wasn’t happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely. There was always another character to play.”

Even though Elsa will assume many roles over the next 50 years — wife, mother, Hollywood star, former leading lady — she really plays just two parts. She is blonde, cream-and-corn Elsa Anderson, and she is sultry actress Laura Lamont, “conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate.”

How Elsa/Laura tries to reconcile her two selves over 50 years is at the heart of Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead, digital galley via NetGalley), a novel I wanted to love but just kind of liked. Reading it was like watching an old movie on TV, pleasant in its familiarity but a passive experience all the same.

Straub’s writing is lovely, but once Elsa/Laura arrives in LA as a 19-year-old bride, her life follows a predictable arc. Of course, her first marriage to another young actor isn’t going to last. Of course, she’s going to attract the attention of studio head Irving Green, who makes her a star and his wife. Of course, she’s going to live in Beverly Hills with her three children, a faithful maid, and a best friend, Ginger, who’s like Lucille Ball. Of course, she’s going to turn to pills to ease her anxiety. Of course, her son grows up troubled, etc., etc.

The first part of the book, charting Elsa’s girlhood at the Cherry County Playhouse, is what all of  it should have been. In describing Elsa’s rambling family house, her gregarious father and stoic mother, flamboyant sister Hildy and secretive sister Josephine, as well as the troupe of hormone-fueled young actors gathered for the summer in the verdant countryside, Straub gives readers something real and heartfelt. After that, the story unreels as an imitation of life, the Golden Age of Hollywood with characters from Central Casting.

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