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A parade of ex-boyfriends in Sloane Crosley’s “Cult Classic”

It means her life is going to change, apparently, but she spends more time looking back than looking forward. Ahead is her fiancé, a glassblower whom she calls Boots, a silly nickname satirizing the silly nicknames that have stuck. Behind her is a parade of ex-boyfriends, all different from Boots in significant ways.

They are more ambitious than him, or less dedicated. They are sportier or more literary or short or more French. She’s obsessed with them in part 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 eats there with her former colleagues from a now closed pop psychology magazine. There’s Vadis, her best friend, whose effortless glamor reminds me of Jameela Jamil’s character in “The Good Place”; Zach, a grumpy leftist who traded journalism for the gig economy; and their former boss, Clive Glenn, a charismatic editor-turned-talking-head on TV. Clive remains a charming, not-quite-trustworthy, successful-to-the-top-level galvanizer of their group.

Lola goes outside to smoke a cigarette and take a break from her friends (being sick of her friends seems like a selfish luxury; the book takes place before or outside of the COVID-19 pandemic). She walks down a super cool city street: “I passed an art gallery with no art, a bar with no sign and buzzers with no name.” Back, she meets the first of her exes, a successful novelist. They’re flirtatious, funny and toxic, a connection that’s still electric enough that you don’t know where it will go.

This highlights the dilemma: her engagement is fragile. She doesn’t seem to like Boots as much as he likes her; she is reluctant to fully commit. The memory – OK, baggage – of all her ex-boyfriends weighs heavily. Crosley skillfully crafts these stories to make each relationship feel complete and unique, as if each could have created their own book. And yet “Cult Classic” moves fast, cutting fast.

“Dogmatic and undecided is deadly, ”warns an ex. She can’t get away from the exes: she reads their letters and remembers the good times. And she actually confronts them, in person. They keep showing up, as surprised to see her as she is to see them. They can’t all keep materializing on his path, but they do.

Lola becomes convinced that this is on purpose. Someone or something must get these men in her way, she thinks. Which sounds like a big conspiracy – but isn’t necessarily wrong.

If Lola or her friends or her ex-boss or any of the other characters (like a no-commitment bestselling novelist) are supposed to look like real people in the New York edition, I’m afraid I’m a lousy guide. I don’t know gossip; I’m here for the story.

Does it have something to do with his friends and former colleagues? Yes. Is there a secret clubhouse nearby? There are. Does that sound sectarian to you? It’s right there in the title. Is there some sort of mind control vibe going on? Hush, don’t ask that out loud.

Boots goes on a business trip and Lola embarks on an investigation of the puzzle of her present while exploring the history and grief of her past. “Romantic emotion leaves a neurological imprint,” Clive tells her, which she considers “a soul-searching story.” It’s a journey created specifically around her and for her, with leagues of cult followers lending a helping hand.

It seems to betray the impertinence of this book to mention that Lola learns lessons along the way. “They say you only hurt those you love, but you can hurt a lot of people you only love moderately,” she admits.

“Cult Classic” is a fiery, sometimes delightfully petty, sometimes eerie journey through urban life and love in the 21st century.

Cult classic

By Sloane Crosley

MCD/FSG, 304 pages, $27

Carolyn Kellogg is the former editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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