Astor Place Vintage

AstorPlaceVintage.jpgTo say that this novel had me at its title would be silly, but the title does say it all: Manhattan with historical flair. I anticipated something like Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time--indeed Stephanie Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage is even peppered with historical photos à la Finney--and I was not at all disappointed. This evocative and charming novel succeeds in taking readers on two journeys through New York, one set in the modern workaday world of vintage clothing dealer, Amanda Rosenbloom, who finds a diary sewn into a fur muff, and the one she “reads,” written by career-minded shopgirl Olive Westcott in 1907.

When Amanda is called to appraise some clothing in the apartment of 98-year-old Jane Kelly, she makes an important discovery among the mod A-lines and mid-century cocktail dresses. An old trunk with Edwardian-era garb hides the century-old diary of a 20-year-old woman named Olive. Against her better judgement, Amanda makes a deal on the dresses and pockets the diary. Unmarried and childless at 39, Amanda is beginning to search for something more in life than a married boyfriend, a struggling business, and rampant insomnia. To that end, she visits a hypnotist and starts reading Olive’s diary. Some odd things begin to happen; she isn’t exactly haunted by Manhattan’s past, but her life begins to mirror Olive’s in disquieting ways.  

Olive began writing in September of 1907, having just moved to Manhattan with her father, a manager at the Woolworth’s on 34th Street. The upwardly mobile Olive enjoys many luxuries and yet has a burgeoning feminist streak. (She even buys herself a book on the female body since no one has bothered to provide her with the basics.) She eschews marriage and instead hopes to pursue a career as a department store buyer. When tragedy strikes, Olive relies on willpower and ambition to succeed in a city full of binding corsets, foul tenements, and, for many ladies of her station, a woeful lack of sex education.

Lehmann deserves much credit for bringing history alive in Astor Place Vintage (Touchstone/S&S; original trade paperback, $16), allowing Amanda the opportunity to stumble upon the buildings where Olive lived, shopped, and ate, in their modern context. The two narratives effortlessly braid together, each with its own tensions and well-developed characters, and each a welcome sight when I removed the bookmark and read well beyond my bedtime. 
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