Book review: The Modern, Anna Kate Blair

Set in and around New York's Museum of Modern Art, this debut explores not just art but sexuality, job precarity and creativity.
The Modern. Twofold image shows young woman with long brown hair on the left and a book cover of a woman in a gallery on the right.

Privilege and precarity are increasingly intertwining in the lives of young professionals. People with reams of qualifications aren’t guaranteed secure employment. And so it is for Sophia, the protagonist of Anna Kate Blair’s The Modern. Sophia has an art history PhD and an enviable fellowship overseas at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. While she has a US fiancé and, consequently, a life path and visa that’s hers for the taking, Sophia doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. She’d like to stay at the Museum, if they’ll have her, but beyond that the future is ambivalent and murky.

‘I felt as if the world were sorted into two categories: everyone and everything was either vulnerable or powerful,’ Sophia reflects. ‘I was strung between the two categories: an entry-level employee with the approval of a powerful institution [and] an immigrant with white skin and a visa.’

Thoughts and research about Sophia’s obsession with modern art give way to data entry and an impending marriage. Her sexual identity is flattened through bisexual erasure – those people who assume she is straight because she is a woman with a male partner. Activity is around, but Sophia is at relative stasis. As her fiancé hikes the Appalachian trail, she doesn’t feel like going to the Pride parade alone, so views it through Instagram.

The Modern is a thoughtful book that captures uneasiness and doubt with verisimilitude. Blair is adept at showing how we can think ourselves into escalating problems and also at capturing the fear that our life’s work and identity could go nowhere, or somewhere wrong.

Although true to a character who is committed to scholarly pursuits, The Modern frequently references artists and academic theory in ways that are not always accessible to the general reader. These references do a lot of heavy lifting to show a protagonist in her own head, one step removed from experiencing her own life, and highly mediated through stories and theories. At the same time, they feel like digressions and, taken together, a touch excessive. While they inform character, it’s harder to see how they serve the narrative trajectory of the novel.

Read: Book review: Ballet Confidential by David McAllister

Nonetheless, this book rings true of the experience of having your lofty work derailed by the uncertainties of adulthood and being part of an impermanent workforce. The Modern is at turns droll and vulnerable, a tale of reckoning with oneself and an unshakable external reality.

The Modern, Anna Kate Blair
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 9781761421242
Paperback: 336pp 
RRP: $32.99
Publication: 30 August 2023

Erin Stewart is a Canberra-based freelance writer and researcher.