Emma Straub’s New Family Saga Is Half Feel-Good, Half Fraught

By Emma Straub

In “All Adults Here,” Emma Straub’s bigly entertaining fourth novel, the protagonist, Astrid Strick, describes her haircutter as “human sunshine: bright, warm, sometimes harsh, but always good for one’s mood.” “Literary sunshine” is a good way to think of Straub’s work. Her writing and tone are consistently bright and straightforward; her approach to character is warm and generous. Although essentially comic, Straub’s novels don’t avoid some of life’s harsh challenges. “All Adults Here” touches on fraught topics like coming out, gender identity, marital infidelity, abortion and predatory behavior, all while maintaining a feel-good mood that suggests most things will work out in the end.

The novel begins with a death. Astrid — a widowed, 68-year-old mother of three — sees an acquaintance struck and killed by a school bus. Despite never having cared for the victim (“not for a single day of their 40-year acquaintance”), Astrid reckons her life has changed. She decides to open up to her family about her romantic relationship with said sunny haircutter, a woman, and to examine the mistakes she has made as a mother. “There was no time to waste,” she thinks. “There were always more school buses.”

Rather than constructing a tightly woven plot, Straub assembles a multigenerational cast of complex characters in an appealing setting, and stands back. This technique — of striking the match and then patiently observing the fireworks — will be familiar to readers of Straub’s recent best sellers “The Vacationers” and “Modern Lovers.”

[ Read an excerpt from “All Adults Here.” ]

The setting of her latest novel is Clapham, N.Y., a fictional Hudson Valley town just north of Poughkeepsie. Astrid has two married sons, an unmarried daughter who got pregnant by I.V.F. and, most significantly for this tale, a precocious 13-year-old granddaughter, Cecelia, who’s been shipped upstate after a disciplinary incident at her school in Brooklyn. Each of Straub’s characters is given a secret, a problem or a private longing that’s hinted at early on. Part of the considerable pleasure of reading the novel comes from witnessing inner desires — or demons — gradually revealed, and then resolved.

Will Astrid’s eldest go through with a questionable real estate plan to prove his worth to his mother? Will her daughter finally grow up and stop sleeping with her married high school boyfriend? Will Cecelia successfully help a new friend transition from August to Robin?

Overhanging all is the question of Astrid’s past mistakes, and their consequences for the younger generations of this family. Astrid is a familiar type in Straub’s fiction: An admirable, intelligent but self-centered matriarch, she’s got guts and good intentions but is a bit chilly around the edges. Astrid believes pets are “useful only in teaching small children about death.” She’s always thought her elder son “would be the one to have a truly big family, in part because he was the one least likely to actively parent on a daily basis.” She’s perhaps more naturally suited for the role of an Auntie Mame than for that of a parent.

The main pleasures of “All Adults Here” come from Straub’s wry comic instincts (a pair of hyperaggressive twin toddlers are hilariously appalling) and her gimlet eye for cultural observation: “Waiting rooms full of pregnant women and women who wanted to be pregnant were more full of codes than a spy’s briefcase.” Her wit extends out from the individual characters into a larger commentary on the difficulties of becoming an adult, making this an especially rich addition to the author’s body of work.

If Straub resolves a few too many potential crises with cinematic ease — tears and cheers from the spectators of the Harvest Festival Parade included — most readers will forgive her. Who among us isn’t in need of a happy ending right now? What could be more welcome than a novel that leaves you feeling optimistic about both the world and the muddle of your own life? Please, bring on the sunshine.

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