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BookBrowse Reviews Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley

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Cult Classic

A Novel

by Sloane Crosley

Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley X
Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2022, 304 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2023, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Chloe Pfeiffer
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A woman in New York gets swept up in a grand, quasi-scientific experiment run by a secret society—and must confront her exes and achieve closure before her wedding.

At a trendy Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan, Lola, the protagonist of Sloane Crosley's novel Cult Classic, runs into an ex-boyfriend. This is the second of two exes she has seen in as many days, at this exact restaurant, but the first one whom she has treated badly. She apologizes for her past behavior. "Another life," the ex replies, waving it off. He's married now, in Iowa, with two daughters. Not so for Lola. "It was not another life for me, it was still my life," she thinks. That's her main problem: She can't let go of the past. She keeps old matchbooks and reads old text messages. An additional problem is that her life keeps flashing before her eyes—or rather, materializing. When she sees a third ex in the same neighborhood, her friends come clean. A secret society, founded by her former boss Clive, is conducting a grand experiment of romantic closure, and Lola—whose exes number in the dozens—is the guinea pig.

Clive's scientific methods are both realistic (social media ads) and borderline fantastical (concentrated energy and thought from the society's members; that part is still in beta), and they succeed in compelling Lola's exes to the neighborhood. "You brought together a spy supergroup to disrupt my life with… vibes?" Lola asks Clive. "Not to disrupt, to help," he says. This experiment in closure comes at an opportune time—Lola, a former serial dater, is getting cold feet about her engagement, an ambivalence Clive can either sense or simply assumes. He wants to help her make a decision either way, he says. Each run-in should make her grow as a person, confront her former rejections or fears or flaws.

This elaborate, quasi-sci-fi setup is the perfect vehicle for Crosley's witty observations about heterosexual norms and relationships in general—temporary and committed, ugly and unconsummated. The cult stuff is funny and interesting, but it works less as tech-wellness satire and more as an extreme showcase of Clive's charismatic personality. Lola isn't still holding a candle for any of her exes—just the woman she could have been if she'd stayed with them—but she is holding one for Clive, with whom she worked closely for almost a decade and had a will-they-won't-they rapport that never resolved. He's the archetypical man you can never really get over: a charmer you convince yourself has turned his charms specifically to you instead of just beaming them out indiscriminately and almost helplessly, like the sun's rays. Anyone who has ever believed, against all logic, in the myth of mutual rejection will find Lola and Clive's association familiar.

Crosley's description of a long-term, somewhat complacent relationship is similarly sharp and moving. Lola is slightly irritated at the niceness and normalcy of her fiancé, nicknamed Boots, and resentful of the life their marriage might lead to: "I worried… I'd find myself unrecognizable, slowly losing touch with my friends, then with the culture at large, until the only books I read were the ones I read about in nail salons, the only art I knew was presented to me through my phone." Commitment has turned to boredom, which has turned to anxiety: "I'd begun stockpiling the times Boots didn't want to have sex to make myself feel better about the times I didn't want to have sex… It was never bad with Boots was the thing, but I wondered what kind of bar this was for a marriage: a low one or an elevated one?"

This last part reminds me of New People by Danzy Senna, in which protagonist Maria considers her relationship's bad sex with a combination of resignation and hilariously twisted logic: "She's done the math. Apparently they don't have that many years of good sex left. Once they have kids, it's all downhill… So the years of bad sex that are specific to them are not much longer. Soon it will be generalized, married-with-children bad sex." Both Lola and Maria experience a pre-wedding should-I-blow-up-my-life identity crisis. But Cult Classic isn't as cynical as New People, or as some other contemporary novels about youngish, often millennial women succumbing to the dark forces of social media, capitalism or general misanthropy. Lola isn't depressed so much as confused. Social media enables her worst tendencies but doesn't ruin her life. People describe her as cynical, but they just don't know her that well.

Indeed, Cult Classic is very much a conventional romantic comedy, with a faint love triangle structure: Lola is choosing between Boots, the safe option who loves her in a way that is alternately scary and borderline unattractive, and Clive, who is described as more physically and emotionally arresting for Lola (even if half the time the effect is "disgusting" and "repellent"), and represents the ultimate "what might have been."

Despite the episodic, TV treatment-sounding synopsis, one of the main pleasures of Cult Classic lies in the prose, which is filled with sparkling, almost kitschy metaphors that are dropped, one by one, as if onto a teetering stack of plates, and are rarely extended for more than a sentence. Of Lola's pact with Boots not to discuss their exes, Crosley writes, "The bones of the concept were solid. No one has the power to control how an ex blooms in one's partner's imagination. Every breakup becomes the wrong size in the retelling. You can keep your food from touching all you want, it all winds up in the same place." One admires the ambition—one more line and those plates would have crashed. On the next page, a favorite: Lola says that walking in on her fiancé and best friend talking is "like watching a daisy and a stapler trying to hold down a conversation." One of the only extended metaphors is men as cigarettes: compulsory, unhealthy, and which Lola never finishes but drops, still burning, on the sidewalk. This isn't terribly subtle, but it's nice to have a touchstone, something to return to, comfortingly, in the whirlwind.

Reviewed by Chloe Pfeiffer

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2022, and has been updated for the July 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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