The worst part of being an adult, thinks one of the characters in Emma Straub’s delightful new novel, is “understanding there was no fairness in the world, no unseen hand on the Ouija board. There was only the internet and the paths you chose for whatever stupid reason that seemed right at the time.”
This astute observation is one of many in “All Adults Here,” Straub’s fifth book. In such novels as “The Vacationers” and “Modern Lovers,” Straub has examined the mordant inequities of life and the fundamental complexities of being a spouse or a parent, a brother or a sister, a child who has never quite grown up in the eyes of their parents. With a light touch, she highlights the impossibility of viewing yourself the way your family sees you and how that myopia leads to misunderstandings that can shape a dynamic for decades.
In “All Adults Here,” Straub handles her intergenerational cast of characters with humor and insight. At the center is Astrid Strick, widowed mother of three adult children. Astrid’s brisk demeanor is tested when she sees a woman she knows (but doesn’t particularly like) hit and killed by a bus. The shock propels Astrid to reconsider how she has treated her family and prompts her to reveal a secret relationship.
Her children, of course, are consumed with their own problems. Her eldest son, Elliot, has bought the choicest piece of real estate in their Hudson River town but fears his preservationist-minded mother will block his chance to make real money on it.
His sister Porter, who raises goats, is pregnant with a married man’s baby. His younger brother Nicky, a former teen heartthrob, has sent his 13-year-old daughter Cecelia to live with Astrid after a school-related catastrophe in Manhattan. Cecelia, meanwhile, is hoping her new classmates don’t discover her transgression and is getting to know her new friend August, a transgender tween whose story is handled with grace and sensitivity.
The ordinary lives Straub depicts here seem surprisingly poignant at this particular point in time: You can’t help but feel wistful at such blessed normality. Worrying about love affairs and family squabbles is a luxury compared with fretting about the toilet paper supply chain.
Still, this novel rings true, the wisdom that its characters gain well earned. “Maybe everyone wanted to zoom through space in one direction or the other, and the trick was finding people who wanted to go the same way you did,” Cecelia thinks. She’s not wrong. Choose your path for good or stupid reasons. You’ll eventually find your way home.
Connie Ogle is a book critic in Florida and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
All Adults Here
By: Emma Straub.
Publisher: Riverhead, 368 pages, $27.