Review: Other People We Married by Emma Straub
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As a transplant Brooklynite, sometimes I feel as if I am living in a strange experiment: rooftop vegetable gardens, yuppie intellectual weed-smoking med students, parents who bring their babies into bars, baristas with PhDs, Maggie Gyllenhaal shopping at the Park Slope Food Coop — where should I stop?
What is Brooklyn anyway? And why would I, sometimes when I was in college, just google the word?
In Emma Straub’s Other People We Married there’s a lot of Brooklyn — or at least a particular upper-class face. Straub herself calls the borough home, and is also a bookseller at the popular BookCourt. Stories such as “Rosemary”, where a bored, ex-editor-turned-stay-at-home-mom hires a pet psychic to help track down a lost cat, seem poised to light a candle in the dark corners of Brooklyn’s “cultural revolution.” Is there art, racial harmony, classical music, and farm-fresh ice-cream here? Sure. But there are also those that are painfully evolved, like Claire from “Rosemary”, who chooses to paint her son’s room “cerulean, not Navy. Nothing nautical. Nothing that would make him want to join the Army, or play with slingshots.”
Maybe that’s what makes something Brooklyn: being hyper-aware, or at least being struck hyper self-aware in the absence of a skyline. Take for example the story “Flyover State”, where young wife Sophie relocates from Prospect Park West to No Name, Wisconsin because her husband scores an assistant professorship he can’t refuse. Out the window go all the independent purveyors of everything. Bleak suburbia opens up like the New Jersey Turnpike south of Exit 12: “One merely had to adjust to the scale of possible adventures,” Sophie laments. “Red Lobster had an All-You-Can-Eat Lobster Tail dinner once a week; the aisles of Home Depot were satisfyingly endless.” This is a land where you’d be hard-pressed to find cerulean, even in a crayon box. Everything is blue.
While eating dinner with one of her husband’s colleagues and his wife, Sophie is asked what she plans to do while her husband is “off molding young minds.” Her retort earns her an under-the-table kick: “Well, you can remove mold with any sharp knife…Then you can just go ahead and eat it.” Fair enough.
Sophie’s crack can also serve as a reader’s guide for Straub’s style of wit. Stories that start as satirical portraits, have a more complicated terrain underneath. At the nucleus of every story is a woman (or, in the case of “Hot Springs Eternal”, a man) whose life has revealed itself — in a strange fixation on a younger man, a vacation gone sour, or through sharing a joint with the grocery bagger who lives in his parent’s basement next door — as out of control.
And so maybe that is why I’m so hell-bent on making this collection about Brooklyn, or at least about New York. Because even though the city isn’t referenced in every story (though most), the prose reaches for it. Because New York is a place where crazy somehow blends into the fabric of intellectual, eccentric, free, a place that hides the unmentionables in a cluster of buzz. But what happens when you pack your family up and take a short trip away, like in “Other People We Married”, and your husband suddenly unleashes a litany of hate-speak against your gay best friend?
“What, you mean all that fag stuff? That really is funny. He should quit the Review and do stand-up, don’t you think?”
Wit is the narrator’s last line of defence against the truth: that none of us know where the hell we are going.
–Lauren Belski is a recent graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Nerve, and Forte.