When Light Novels Are “Pastel Lit”: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers

emma straub Modern Lovers coverPastel lit is back!  Recently at the bookstore I spotted several women’s novels with cute pastel-colored covers.   How I’d love to dip into one of those turquoise or pink  chick lit books!  I know some of you object to the phrase “chick lit,” but I use it to describe light formulaic romances like Bridget Jones.  Some use the blanket phrase “women’s fiction” for romances and pop family “issue” novels, but then what do you call literary fiction by women?

So I have coined the phrase “pastel lit” for pop women’s fiction.

And I found an excuse to read it.  Michiku Kakutani at The New York Times enjoyed Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and didn’t think it was entirely a beach read.A nd Alex  Kuczynski in The New York Times Book Review thought it was a witty romp, though he bashed the ending.

But, unfortunately, it is strictly pastel lit.

It’s not a bad book: It has its audience.  It’s not chick lit exactly, but it is fluffy.  This superficial novel with its pared-down prose reads almost like an outline. Two well-to-do couples, Elizabeth and Andrew and  Zoe and Jane, and their two children, Harry and Ruby, who attend the same private school,  live cozily on the same street in Brooklyn.   But there are problems in both marriages.

It opens with Elizabeth, a realtor, going to her neighbor Zoe’s house for a book club.  That should have been my cue.:  book clubs in novels usually indicate the book is super-light. It turns out Elizabeth and her husband Andrew (a rich guy who doesn’t do much) and Zoe, an African-American restaurateur whose rich parents used to be a Motown duo,  were in a band called Kitty’s Mustache when they were students at Oberlin.  There was a fourth member of the band, Lydia, who had a solo career after the band broke up.  She became famous but died of a drug overdose.

Usually I like books about bands, but I got stuck on the name Kitty’s Mustache.

Straub writes,

The band was called Kitty’s Mustache, a hat tip to Tolstoy’s heroine.  They were regular college kids, in love with the idea of their own cleverness.  No one had ever thought of anything before.  It was the best night of her life to date, easy.

Nobody likes a reader who points out a mistake. BUT ARE YOU READY?   It’s not Kitty in Anna Karenina, but  Sonya in War and Peace who dresses as “a Circassian…with burnt-cork mustache and eyebrows” and goes out mumming on Christmas Eve with her cousins Natasha, dressed as a hussar, and Nicholas (whom she has a crush on), dressed as a woman.

It’s not Kitty’s mustache but Sonya’s mustache!

Tolstoy writes,

Sónya’s costume was the best of all. Her mustache and eyebrows were extraordinarily becoming. Everyone told her she looked very handsome, and she was in a spirited and energetic mood unusual with her. Some inner voice told her that now or never her fate would be decided, and in her male attire she seemed quite a different person.

Everybody falls in love with Sonya with that mustache!

I consider this mistake a failure not of Straub but of her editors.  I understand completely how Straub made a mistake, but surely somebody in publishing has read Tolstoy. And what about fact checkers?  I’ll give you a hint:  type in “mustache” on your e-book of War and Peace and tada!

Okay, Straub clearly loves literature. Elizabeth tells us the name of the band’s hit song, “Mistress of Myself,”  comes from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  The two heroines’ names, I noticed, are “hat tips” to Pride and Prejudice:  Elizabeth like Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of P&P, and Zoe’s last name is Bennett.  And her wife is Jane!  Lydia the dead singer:  the brat in P&P who elopes!

Andrew becomes involved with a cult, so I don’t have the faintest idea what his name refers to.

The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the adults and their 17-year-old children. Somebody wants to make a movie about Lydia (the famous singer)… Andrew doesn’t want them to and won’t sign the forms…  Elizabeth and Zoe do and will sign..   And  Elizabeth’s smart son Harry and Zoe’s underachiever daughter Ruby who have attended the same private school forever fall in love, which is a problem. Why?

The problems of the rich!

4 thoughts on “When Light Novels Are “Pastel Lit”: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers

  1. I started and gave up on a chick lit novel ‘Animals’ by Emma Unsworth. I thought she might have been the daughter of the great novelist Barry Unsworth, but no such luck. It was about two London young women getting into all sorts of wild adventures, but it didn’t seem to have much point beyond grossing the readers out.


    • I missed that one, but sometimes these books are double-billed, by “pastel lit” covers and then they get reviews that make you think they’re more serious than they are. Some of these books ARE good, but who has time to sort them?!:)

      Liked by 1 person

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