When people meet Lola, they sing pop songs at her. She’s an editor at a cultural website, hilariously cynical, judgy but big-hearted. She’s the heroine of Sloane Crosley’s “Cult Classic,” a novel of coming of age in the big city, if age can be 37.
One night she thinks, “if there was ever anything so terribly wrong with me, it was only that I was a woman who’d spent her youth in New York and never left.” She’s quite drunk, and has just gotten engaged.
This means her life will change, ostensibly, but she spends more time looking back than forward. Ahead is her fiancé, a glassblower she calls Boots, a silly nickname satirizing silly nicknames that stuck. Behind her is a parade of ex-boyfriends, all of them different from Boots in significant ways.
They’re more ambitious than him, or less devoted. They’re more athletic or more literary or short or more French. She’s obsessing about them partly because they’ve started crossing her path — often near a single restaurant in Chinatown. Which is more than a little weird.
The book begins when Lola is eating there with her former colleagues from a now-shuttered pop psychology magazine. There’s Vadis, her best friend, whose effortless glamour reminds me of Jameela Jamil’s character on “The Good Place”; Zach, a cranky leftist who traded in journalism for the gig economy; and their former boss, Clive Glenn, a charismatic editor turned TV talking head. Clive remains a galvanizer of their group, charming, not quite trustworthy, next-level successful.
Lola steps out for a cigarette and to take a break from her friends (getting sick of one’s friends seems like a selfish luxury; the book takes place before, or apart from, the COVID-19 pandemic). She walks down a super-cool city street: “I passed an art gallery with no art, a dive bar with no sign, and buzzers with no names.” Returning, she runs into the first of her exes, a now-successful novelist. They flirt, funny and toxic, a connection that’s still electric enough that you’re not sure where it will go.
That shines a light on the dilemma: her engagement is fragile. She doesn’t seem to love Boots as much as he loves her; she’s reluctant to fully commit. The memory — OK, baggage — of all her ex-boyfriends weighs heavy. Crosley skillfully crafts these stories so each relationship feels full and unique, as if each could have made a book of its own. And yet “Cult Classic” moves swiftly, cutting quick.
“Opinionated and indecisive is lethal,” one ex warns. She can’t get away from the exes: She’s reading their letters and remembering the good times. And she’s actually confronting them, in person. They keep showing up, as surprised to see her as she is to see them. They can’t all keep materializing in her path, but they do.
Lola becomes convinced that it’s by design. Someone or something must be putting these men in her path, she thinks. Which seems like a grand conspiracy — but isn’t necessarily wrong.
If Lola, her friends or ex-boss or any of the other characters (like a noncommittal successful novelist) are meant to resemble real people in New York publishing, I’m afraid I am a lousy guide. I don’t know the gossip; I’m here for the story.
Does it have something to do with her friends and former co-workers? Yes. Is there a secret clubhouse nearby? There is. Does it seem cultish? It’s right there in the title. Is there some kind of mind control vibe thing happening? Shhh, don’t ask that out loud.
Boots takes a work trip and Lola throws herself into investigating the puzzle of her present while exploring the history and heartbreak of her past. “Romantic emotion leaves a neurological footprint,” Clive tells her, which she thinks of as “a search history of the soul.” It’s a journey created specifically around her and for her, with leagues of cultish followers lending a hand.
It seems a betrayal of the sassiness of this book to mention that Lola is learning lessons along the way. “They say you only hurt the ones you love, but you can hurt lots of people you only moderately like,” she admits.
“Cult Classic” is a spirited, sometimes delightfully mean-spirited, occasionally weird trip through urban life and love in the 21st century.
By Sloane Crosley
MCD/FSG, 304 pages, $27
Carolyn Kellogg is formerly the books editor of the Los Angeles Times.