The characters in Sarah Rainone’s debut novel, Love Will Tear Us Apart, are cast from familiar molds: the masochistic boor, the aspirant fashion designer, the would-be musician, and the gullible hippie. As the book opens, these four twenty-somethings (none particularly likable) are preparing to gather at a mansion in the fictional burg of Galestown, Rhode Island. The occasion is the marriage of two mutual friends, Dan and Lea, who met in high school in the early ’90s and have spent the years since college pursuing successful careers.
Naturally, the wedding turns out to be less a celebration than a chance for loud group commiseration. Ben is mired in self-loathing: Unlike Dan, he never made it to college and now supports himself by bartending. Alex subsides on a diet of eight balls, while dreaming of a gig in haute couture. Shawn wants to be a rock star but still waits tables at a Greenwich Village tourist trap. Cort has taken up with a dreadlocked trust funder called Uncle John, who preaches the virtues of the freewheeling life.
The bulk of Love Will Tear Us Apart is tethered to the reception, as seen through the eyes of each protagonist. (Dan and Lea are never given their own voice; they serve instead as the mirror by which the other characters see themselves.) Rainone further splinters the narrative into a series of high school flashbacks, forcing the reader—along with Ben, Cort, Alex, and Shawn—to observe the present through the cracked lens of the past. It’s not a new trick, but Rainone is especially good at giving voice to the emotional deflation of the postcollegiate years, when it seems everyone—everyone!—has made it, except you. Here’s Ben, drunk and misty-eyed, on Dan’s success: “Not only does he not rub it in your face, it’s like he never even noticed the ever-deepening chasm between us.” Once, Ben remembers, “everybody said we were going to do great things someday, only somewhere along the line, they stopped saying that about me.”
Rainone’s other gift is great comic timing, and the story, though soaked in nostalgia, never gets soggy. Each character hums with his or own peculiar energy, and the prose fluctuates accordingly. Ben tosses out lines from his favorite rap anthems, and Cort burbles in a hypnotizing hippie-speak. “Temping was, like, killing my ability to keep up with the trends,” thinks Alex, “which is totally necessary for launching a line as politically relevant as mine is, one inspired equally by the death of electroclash in post–September 11 New York, the death of Valley Girl chic, and the Riot grrl movement. I’m calling it Kunt.”
Love Will Tear Us Apart is being marketed partly as a “Nick Hornsby–esque ode to the way music shapes our memories,” but this is misleading. Each chapter is titled with the name of a pop hit—“Like a Prayer,” “Pictures of You,” etc.—and the novel contains a very funny set piece concerning Kurt Cobain’s suicide (“Isn’t it, like . . . the end of the world . . . or an era . . . or something?” sobs Alex), but for the most part, Rainone is best with her own creations, individuals trapped between the bittersweet past and the fear of growing up. “I just let it happen and trust that everything’s gonna be fine,” sighs Cort, “and I realize that sometimes the best place to be is between the songs.”
Matthew Shaer is a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor.