By Emma Straub. (Riverhead Books, 356 pages, $26.)
The plot of Emma Straub's new novel, "Modern Lovers," is one near-miss after another. A couple almost break up. A business almost burns down. A man almost loses a fortune to a cult. A naive boy walks into a party of tough strangers and — well, something almost happens, but then it doesn't. Chapters of "Modern Lovers" end on cliffhangers that, later, turn out to be nothing. The book's momentum starts and stops, gasps followed by shrugs.
It's a soothing book: Life isn't that bad. Even bad things aren't that bad.
The story revolves around two Brooklyn couples — Andrew and Elizabeth, and their neighbors Zoe and Jane. Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe have been friends since college (when their rock band almost got famous, and when Elizabeth and Zoe almost had an affair).
Now the couples are wealthy and angsty, looking back to their youth, thinking about second chances and starting over, even as their teenage children Harry and Ruby are looking ahead (and at each other). Harry is sweet and better behaved than any teenage boy I have ever known, but Ruby, thank goodness, is spiky, defiant and interesting. Without her, this book might just drift away.
"Modern Lovers" is a pleasant enough read, and it is not without wisdom and a little drama. But mostly it is, itself, a near-miss.
LAURIE HERTZEL, senior editor/books
By Dennis Covington. (Little, Brown, 224 pages, $28.)
Dennis Covington, whose "Salvation on Sand Mountain" was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award, plunges directly into the heart of darkness in this profoundly felt but deeply uneven lamentation. He's on a quest to find points of light and faith in the world's most violent places, and to demonstrate that religious faith is not a compass, but rather an elusive, flickering light one pursues rather than possesses.
Among his destinations are Juarez, Mexico, and the deadliest zones in Syria's civil war. In both places, civilians are routinely tortured and beheaded; children are "collateral damage"; corruption flourishes, and hope is hard to find.
Yet find it he does — in a tireless evangelical preacher who braves Mexico's drug-trafficking hell to provide a home for mentally ill homeless people, in the laughter of children playing in bullet-riddled hospitals despite having lost their limbs in sectarian warfare.
The trouble is he doesn't find much of that sort of thing — at least not enough to make us hopeful for humanity, or to shore up his own sometimes shaky sense that life is worth living. Covington's pilgrimage includes an account of his own dangerous mental and existential crises and his struggle to keep his patience with his severely mentally ill and needy older brother.
It's all bookended by the story of Kayla Mueller, a 24-year-old Christian humanitarian aid worker from Arizona who died in ISIL hands, a point of light if ever there was one.
It's all great stuff, but in the end, it's a collection of eloquent, harrowing dispatches, not a cohesive philosophical memoir.
PAMELA MILLER, night metro editor