Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann

In brief: The story of two women trying to make it in New York – Amanda struggles with a bad relationship and business issues in the current day; while Olive wants independence in the early 1900s.

The good: Both of the women have entertaining stories to tell.

The not-so-good: Olive’s ruminating over sex gets a little boring, as does Amanda trying to break off her relationship.

Why I chose it: Looked interesting and I enjoy dual narratives.

Year: 2013

Pages: 396

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Setting: New York City

My rating: 8 out of 10

I’m always attracted to novels that have a dual narrative – Kate Morton is one author who does this type of book beautifully. However, when it comes to American settings, I’m a bit stuck for ‘go-to’ authors. Happily, Astor Place Vintage is a novel that’s definitely worth talking about. I was first attracted to it in store for the title, which intrigued me. Secondly, it was an American import (I can just tell by the different covers – I don’t know how) and we don’t get too many down here for numerous reasons. The last thing was a quote from Khaled Hosseini of And The Mountains Echoed fame on the cover – surely this book was about more than vintage fashion? I’m glad this book caught my eye because I think I would have missed it otherwise – I haven’t heard/read any press about it, which is a pity because it’s a fine book. The dual narrative structure is difficult to pull off, but Lehmann does it really well. She manages to make the reader remember what both characters are up to despite alternating chapters and create the ‘just one more (or usually two more) chapter’ feeling.

The book opens with Amanda in an elderly lady’s apartment in modern day New York. The woman is selling vintage clothing to Amanda, who has a small store specialising in 70s and earlier fashion. (Another thing that endeared me to Astor Place Vintage – Amanda’s view that 80s fashion is bad, bad, bad). Inside a fur muff she finds a diary which belongs to Olive, who has just arrived in New York City in 1907. As Amanda reads, the reader is transported to Olive’s point of view.

Olive wants a job – not just any job. She wants to work in a department store as a buyer. Unfortunately, it’s something that her father refuses to allow and it’s not until Olive’s fortunes take a spectacularly poor turn that she has a hope of attempting her dream in very different circumstances. Finally obtaining a job on the floor of Siegel-Cooper department store, Olive realises that she’s from a different group than her colleagues. How can she fit in?

Amanda is also having a few troubles. There’s an affair with her (married) high school boyfriend that she can’t end and it’s causing drama. Plus, there’s the fact that Jeff is paying her every month and she’s starting to feel like a kept woman. As Amanda continues to read Olive’s diary, she begins to see and hear strange things. What is happening? Is Amanda really seeing Olive?

It’s interesting that both Olive and Amanda are both all for being independent women, yet some of their problems are distinctly boy-related. Olive is eager to learn about sex, but with the subject taboo and there not much information out there, she’s failing. I felt she did ruminate on it a little too much, but I suppose it could be a reaction to the massive change in her circumstances. Amanda worries about her relationship with Jeff so much that she’s got chronic insomnia and resorts to snooping about his wife. Be strong ladies!

Some of the coincidences between Amanda and Olive’s lives were very long odds, but this is fiction. If the planets all didn’t align, then the story wouldn’t be as interesting. Astor Place Vintage ties the two narratives together in a way that is endlessly fascinating and completes it with some gorgeous pictures of New York department stores. I was so captivated that I Googled many of the stores referred to – Lehmann has done some serious (and seriously appealing) research.

A fun and feminine read with some history thrown in – definitely worth the read!

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