Modern women are glad to live in a time of equal opportunities, the right to vote, education and careers that eluded our fore mothers, and the ability to make our own decisions whether they are financial, sexual or professional. Yet, sometimes we look to the past with a bit of yearning. Hence, the popularity of television shows like “Downton Abbey.” Just what was it like to live nearly a century ago?
Amanda Rosenbloom is about to find out…
As Stephanie Lehmann’s book Astor Place Vintage opens, Amanda Rosenbloom is meeting with Jane Kelly. Jane Kelly is 98-years-old, in ill health, and has several vintage for clothing items for sale that she has placed in a trunk. Amanda is the proprietor of Astor Place Vintage, a boutique located in Manhattan featuring decades of amazing vintage fashions.
Amanda finds a lot of glorious treasures in Mrs. Kelly’s trunk, but the most surprising treasure is a diary from 1907 found in the lining of a fur muff. The diary belongs to one twenty-year-old Olive Westcott, a woman very much of her time. Yet, she is also filled with ambitions and desires that wouldn’t seem out of place in our modern age.
Amanda can’t help but read Olive’s diary. And while she’s getting sucked into the past, she also is dealing with some very unyielding present-day problems. Professionally, Amanda is struggling to keep Astor Place Vintage afloat. And her landlord just informed her that the lease on her boutique will not be renewed. Amanda has to come up with the money to find a new place or go out of business.
Personally, Amanda is closing in on turning forty both single and childless, which has her quite disheartened. She’s also having an affair with her very married high school sweetheart who helps her out financially. And to top it off, Amanda is also coping with killer insomnia. Olive’s diary is a means of escape and in a way, therapy.
As Olive’s diary commences, we find out she has just moved to Manhattan with her father who has been hired to manage a Woolworth’s on 34th Street. Compared to other women of the time, Olive has quite a few luxuries. She lives in a refined home and though not college-educated, she did attend finishing school. However, Olive knows what it’s like to suffer tragedy. Her mother died giving birth to her. She also seems hopelessly naïve for a grown woman. She’s never been kissed and she’s woefully uninformed about the basics of her own female anatomy.
However, Olive desires to have a career of her own. She wants to be a store buyer. But working is for low class girls, not well-heeled young ladies like Olive.
Olive’s life soon takes an unforeseen turn when her father dies unexpectedly. Olive is totally on her own and needs a job to survive. She gets a job as a shop girl at a department store. At her job Olive tries to stake her claim as an ambitious and resourceful young woman and also befriends her co-worker, Angelina. Angelina experiences as the child of poor Italian immigrants is quite different from Olive’s upper-class, WASPy upbringing. And Angelina is also having a scandalous affair with a man who helps her financially.
Olive is shocked by Angelina having sexual relations without a ring on her finger. But she also values Angelina’s kindness and support. Olive is also oddly attracted to Angelina’s brother, Joe, who is a bit of a dastardly rake (man whore). Will Olive deny her growing desires or will her bloomers stay firmly in place?
Meanwhile, in the modern day, Amanda is coming grips with her own issues. She knows it’s up to her to make the important changes to transform her life both professionally and personally. Will she find a way to keep Astor Place Vintage in business? Will she give her married lover the big heave-ho? Will she actually get a good night’s sleep? With Olive’s diary as guide (and her own modern girl smarts), maybe Amanda will. This diary might also give Amanda a clue on how Jane Kelly is connected to Olive.
I’m not always a fan of chick lit. I find most chick lit trite and formulaic, but Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage is the thinking girl’s chick lit. I loved how the ending was not wrapped up in a pretty bow, which made me wonder how both Amanda and Olive’s lives might play out. The ending is totally left up to the reader’s imagination.
I also loved how Lehmann conveyed two characters that are very relatable and multi-dimensional. Sure, Amanda probably shouldn’t be having an affair. And I found Olive’s snobbery a bit off-putting at times. However, Amanda and Olive’s flaws made just made them more real to me.
Furthermore, Lehmann does a tremendous job of showing, not telling. I could actually envision the vintage fashions Lehman lovingly describes and I also appreciated how she brought New York City fully-alive, whether commenting on the foul tenements of 1907 or Jane Kelly’s tasteful apartment. Furthermore, the photos interspersed in Astor Place Vintage of New York City at the helm of the twentieth-century are a delightful bonus.
Ultimately for me, Astor Place Vintage is as satisfying as finding a gorgeous cashmere sweater for only ten bucks at my favorite vintage clothing boutique. I highly recommend it.