Ten minutes into my video interview with the author Emma Straub, I’m chatting with her husband Mike. This Google Hangout is supposed to be about Straub’s new novel, but it turns out Mike and I have the same hometown, and our eyes are bright with the thrill of meeting someone new whom we can talk to about something besides the pandemic. Soon after he leaves and Straub and I are back on track, talking fiction and family, she pauses. “Hold on,” she says, “we have a 6-year-old who is about to come in.” And so it goes.
Like many parents, Straub, 40, is homebound and juggling two jobs. While she promotes her new book, All Adults Here, and helps manage new challenges for the bookstore she and her husband own in Brooklyn, she is also homeschooling her two young kids, breaking up fights and spending a lot of time playing with Legos.
Though the novelist never could have anticipated it, the cozy saga of familial bonds and strife she’s preparing to release on May 4 has taken on new meaning. Many of us have been forced into inescapably close quarters with the people we love most–getting reacquainted with one another’s most irritating quirks and wondering how to live under the same roof without losing our minds.
These tensions have always been at the heart of Straub’s fiction, particularly in her last two novels, Modern Lovers (2016) and The Vacationers (2014). Her characters’ dilemmas are quiet but universal: What happens when we outgrow the friendships that shaped us into who we are? When we keep secrets from our families, whom are we really protecting? And how can memories from our pasts catapult us back into the selves we thought we’d left behind?
In All Adults Here, her fourth novel, Straub cements her status as a master of the domestic ensemble drama–acutely defining each voice, from a startlingly astute eighth-grader to a widowed grandmother navigating a new romance. The book traces several generations of the Strick family, whose members can’t seem to escape their messy histories in their close-knit Hudson Valley town. Matriarch Astrid witnesses a tragic bus accident, which prompts her to remember an unsettling decision she made as a young mother–and to reveal her same-sex romance to her three grown kids. Her daughter Porter has a few things to share herself: she is pregnant and still pining for a man from her past. And Porter’s niece Cecelia is starting over at a new middle school after getting caught up in drama at her last one.
Straub had her second child while writing the book, and she found herself consumed with new thoughts about parenthood. “All I think about is: What does it feel like to be a person with parents? What does it feel like to be a person with children?” she says. “And what does it feel like, especially, to be in the middle?”
While readers will relate to the comfortable familiarity of Straub’s work, it has also taken on an unexpected air of escapism. Straub laughs at the thought: “My book started out as normal life, but now I feel like it’s a fantasy novel.” All Adults Here follows the characters as they wander the town, meeting in restaurants and enduring awkward face-to-face confrontations. “Those are all things you can’t do right now,” Straub says. “Going over to your high school boyfriend’s house and sleeping with him–we just can’t.”
Community lies at the heart of All Adults Here, much as it does for Straub herself. The author grew up and still lives in New York City, a place that is often crowded and cramped–ideal for anonymity. But in her version of the city, she rides a constant carousel of memories: “I love seeing my ninth-grade music teacher walking down the street and just stopping to talk.” It’s a similar closeness the residents of the upstate town in her book enjoy. The characters walk the streets they’ve known for years, surrounded by the places and people of their youth. For Straub, the setting is personal.
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Straub was always close with her book-loving parents–her mother worked in early-childhood literacy, and her father is best-selling horror novelist Peter Straub. “I thought I had the coolest parents in town, and I still do,” she says. Her parents moved and currently live a few blocks away–close enough that earlier in the day, Straub’s mother dropped off a package of chocolate-covered pretzels and a toy for her grandkids, which she carefully left without coming within 6 ft. of the family. Not far from either residence is the children’s school–the same one Straub attended–and the bookstore, Books Are Magic, that she and her husband opened in 2017 to fill the void left by the closure of the beloved BookCourt, where Straub once worked. Straub had no business experience, but the former owners of BookCourt helped her along.
As a mother herself, Straub is now more aware of the decisions her own parents made during her childhood. She remembers riding in the back of the family station wagon without a seat belt. “Now, if my kids are unbuckled, I’m like climbing over the seat on the Gowanus Expressway,” she says. She wanted to explore multiple generations of a family in All Adults Here to unpack how the way we’re parented informs the way we eventually parent our own kids. “We all want total approval and acceptance from our parents,” she says. “That’s what all three of the adult children in the novel are striving for. Do they get it? Sometimes. If they always got it, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”
Straub also probes the gaps between appearances and what happens behind closed doors. Externally, the Stricks appear blissfully loving and supportive. “No one would look at this family and think there were any sort of issues–but of course everyone has issues,” she says. In breaking down the unconditional way a parent loves a child, and the grown child loves the parent in return, Straub illuminates just how normal it is to feel disconnected from the people we should know better than anyone else.
In another reality, Straub would be dividing her time between the store and preparations for weeks on the road for her book tour, but the coronavirus outbreak has put everything on pause. You can hear the disappointment in her voice. It would have been her first tour as a bookseller as well as an author. “Going to independent bookstores across the country is one of my only hobbies,” she says. “I’m really sad not to be able to do it, especially now that I connect with these bookstores on this other level.”
And in March, Straub shut Books Are Magic to the public, per the state’s orders to temporarily close nonessential businesses. In the weeks leading up to the order, she was in contact with other independent booksellers, all trying to prepare for a possible hit to the already unstable business. Books Are Magic, a darling of social media and often host to starry guests, has been surviving, thanks to an outpouring of support from loyal customers. The store is also hosting several virtual events, where authors can connect with fans and read from their books. Straub, who is responsible for buying most of the books coming into the store, is receiving enough online orders to stay afloat for now.
And, as disappointed as she is about how plans to launch All Adults Here have changed, she’s thinking more about other writers, particularly those publishing debut books right now after years of work. “This is a major ‘I want everyone to win’ situation,” she says, scooping up her cat, Killer, and placing her over her shoulder. “I want people to buy any book from any bookstore. It doesn’t have to be my book from my bookstore.”
Her role as a bookseller gives her hope: because what people need now more than anything, she believes, are books. “What are we all doing in our quarantines?” she asks. “We’re figuring out how to walk out the door without walking out the door. Reading a book is the best way to do that.”
This appears in the May 11, 2020 issue of TIME.