At the heart of Iris Martin Cohen’s debut novel, “The Little Clan,” is the fictional Lazarus Club, a once-grand Manhattan institution now grown geriatric. Ava Gallanter, just 25 years old, fits right in as the live-in librarian, preferring to pen her novel with quills and wear dowdy ankle-length skirts.
When her friend Stephanie returns to the city, the two fall into their familiar routine, with Ava following Stephanie to the hottest clubs and brunch locales. Eventually they decide to start a literary salon.
Cohen shows real love for her story and the memorable Lazarus Club, but it’s hard to share her affection, particularly for Ava. She is oh-so shy and just too busy daydreaming to actually act. And despite being a professional bookworm, she has only read 19th-century white male authors, plus some Edith Wharton.
Stephanie, a party-girl model whose need for buzz subsumes any literary interests, is not much better. She and Ava have hardships, but they also abuse the trust of everyone around them, don’t pay their debts and seem shocked when their selfish behavior is highlighted.
Unsympathetic characters are fine, but if they also lack a meaningful arc, they remain unsympathetic. A realization Ava has about her sexuality in the book’s final pages appears out of nowhere, a reaction to something Stephanie says. You’re happy for her, but it’s not going to solve her problems.
The book seems to want to say things about a lot of big ideas — the hegemony of white men in the “Western canon,” female friendship dynamics, race, sexuality — but they are drowned out in the revelry and recriminations.