"What Does Growing Up Feel Like?"--Emma Straub on "Modern Lovers"

Modern LoversEmma Straub’s latest cleverly acerbic, and insightful novel focuses on a group of former college friends who are now impending empty nesters, grappling with midlife crisis. Modern Lovers demonstrates that you’re never too old to grow up.

I recently turned 36, an age that has always sounded truly, profoundly adult. To kids, it sounds ancient and to grandparents it sounds youthful, but there is no mistaking it for anything but smack-in-the-middle adult. For weeks before my birthday, I thought of a line in Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca, a scene in which the main character, the new Mrs. DeWinter, says that she wishes she were a women of 36, dressed in black satin and a string of pearls. 36, both to her and me, was Grown Up.

The idea of being a grown up is hilariously different to me now than it was five years ago, or ten, or twenty, the point at which I first encountered Mrs. DeWinter and her imaginary pearls. When I started writing Modern Lovers, that was the idea I wanted to explore, to swim around inside of—what does growing up feel like, and when is it over? For my characters, some of whom are teenagers and some of whom are nearing 50, the answer was a decisive never.

Harry and Ruby, nearing the end of high school, are brokering what it means to be separate from their parents, and separate from the friends who populated their childhoods. Meanwhile, both sets of their parents -- who have been close friends since way back when they were young and cool – are going through their own personal renovations, trying to reimagine what might lie ahead. That is, until the startling resurrection of their own college lives forces a self-perception overhaul. The parents start thinking about all the mistakes they made, and the kisses they stole, and as anyone with parents knows, there is nothing more mortifying than the idea of your mother or father as a sexual being.

There are moments that I do feel like an adult—my ability to walk into a party by myself without feeling self-conscious, or when trying to wrangle both of my small children into the bathtub, or when I remember to wear band-aids before I put on a new pair of shoes. But most of the time, I still feel like my twenty-six year old self, and my nineteen-year-old self, and my eleven-year-old self all at the same time. I try to be nice to all those previous incarnations, to remember what they knew and what they still had yet to learn. Growing up isn’t always seamless, but it is pleasant enough when viewed from a distance, with kindness and a sense of humor about all the things that one did inexpertly. It’s even more satisfying to do so with one’s fictional characters, when you get to choose their mistakes and missteps, and, ultimately, their triumphs.

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