The Modern: A homage to art, love, and life in Manhattan by Anna Kate Blair

There is much to love in this debut novel from Melbourne writer Anna Kate Blair. It’s about art and desire and life in Manhattan. It’s also about life choices and ambition, about finding our path and finding love. 

The key character, Sophia, leaves Australia for a graduate position at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The author has a PhD in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Cambridge and has worked at MoMA, so this gives the novel a satisfying richness of detail about life in a top-tier arts museum. And the intimate details about living in the city really do make it feel like an homage to Manhattan. 

THE MODERN is full of erudite references to art and literature that are fun to identify and take the story beyond the life crisis of an insecure 30-year-old. But that is the heart of the story. Sophia is facing career uncertainty as she awaits the outcome of her application for a new (and much coveted) position at MoMA. But it’s the rest of her life that’s the cause of her major disquiet.  

Sophia accepts a proposal of marriage from Robert, her long-term live-in boyfriend, even though they appear to have nothing in common and she is really more attracted to women anyway. She still broods over the break-up of a previous queer relationship and daydreams about her friend Cara who she sees as ‘a tantalising possibility, like a lemon tree seen over a high fence’. Facing the daunting prospect of buying a dress for her big day, Sophia is scathing about the whole business of weddings ‘with love packaged in the service of commerce’. 

Much of the novel explores Sophia’s uncertainties and insecurities that are shared through lengthy internal monologues. The more she questions her life choices the less she seems to understand herself and her own motivations, much less those of the people around her. This becomes a little tiresome for the reader, like constantly listening to a friend who is unhappy but refuses to follow anyone’s advice. Despite her obvious intelligence and ambition, Sophia seems to just let life happen to her. She may be on an important personal journey but after 321 pages this is not resolved, even if she does admit in the very last paragraph that her problems may be down to ‘my errors of passivity.’

In the closing pages, Sophia quotes the famous Max Weber aphorism that modernity is the disenchantment of the world. And even though I loved much about this book, by the end I felt just a little disenchanted with Sophia.

THE MODERN is well crafted and quite beautifully written. Sophia feels very real and that is surely testament to Anna Kate Blair’s talent as a writer and an observer of the human condition. I hope there are more novels to come!

THE MODERN is published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. TPB rrp $32.99

Book review by Dr Diana Carroll