Stephanie Lehmann tries for something new with her fifth novel, telling the stories of two oddly similar women who just happen to live a century apart. With her characters of Amanda in 2007 and Olive in 1907, Lehmann casts a detailed and visual look at both the city of New York itself and feminist issues at different points in time. Astor Place Vintage is about the past, and about progress and change. Though the timelines are separated by a wide margin of years, Lehmann uses both her protagonists creatively and well. Tthe author fully and subtly showcases how both similar and different Amanda and Olive's lives are through the parallels that pop up in each character's plot.
The dual narrative structure makes for compelling storytelling and is evenly matched between modern Amanda and vintage Olive. Both women are interesting and well-drawn, and their lives create a dichotomy that will make readers - especially women - think about how far feminism has gotten our gender. There are a lot of similarities between the two perspectives: they each struggle to secure a place to live, both have gone through life with absent parent(s), and each, in her way, goes about refusing to adhere to society's intransigence on how a woman should live her life. Both women (Olive as a shopgirl, Amanda as a single female business owner) exist in roles not exactly approved of by their respective societies and struggle mightlily because of that. Both women live in turn of the century decades and fight to find their footing on their own, with as little help from outside sources as possible.
For all their connections and similarities, Lehmann makes sure to give each woman a unique characteristics and different voice. They may be more alike than different, but there are several things that set them apart from one another. Notably one such instance is sex, and how each character relates to it and men. A woman of her time in that regard, Olive is far from a sexually liberated woman, and is without the barest knowledge about sex or her own body. The lengths society went to in order to keep women caged, ignorant of their own bodies is frightening to look back on, and Lehmann shows how frustrating and even scary that situation would be. Amanda is an empowered woman of the 2000s, but takes monetary help from her married lover --- something Olive expressly would never do, despite having far fewer chances for sources of income than Amanda. Be it premarital sex or extramarital affairs, the way Olive and Amanda relate to the men their lives could not be more different. The author takes pains to not cast judgement and say which character is "right" in her opinions and actions, which leaves the door open for reader interpretation of who is the more "modern" woman.
It's more than obvious just how much time and research Stephanie Lehmann put into her story. This is obviously an author with a deep and abiding love for the Big Apple, and it is apparent on the pages of her novel. From the black and white pictures to the architectural details woven into the story, both versions of her New York come alive with ease. An enjoyable story in its own right, Astor Place Vintage gets an extra little boost from the inclusion of the photographs showing New York as it grew and changed during the time that Olive would have lived in the city. The setting comes to life as only New York can - a sprawling, expanding beast of a city that changes immeasurable over the 100 years between the two storylines.
I enjoyed this novel from the beginning, but I did have a few issues with some of the plotting as the novel wore on. The magical realism, or the trances that Amanda has due to her hypnotism felt misused and like an unnecessary inclusion. For such a strong novel about real issues and problems during the turn of the centuries, Amanda's visions were too melodramatic for me. I would've preferred a novel that was a straight historical fiction/contemporary and though the interludes were few and far between, they detracted from my overall impression of Astor Place Vintage.
This is a solid, well-written, and obviously researched piece of fiction. The ending was perhaps too open-ended to provide full satisfaction, but Lehmann leaves hope for both her characters without being to definite on what happens after the final page. Astor Place Vintage is a nostalgic, smartly-woven tale of two likeable and flawed women just trying to make it own their own. I absolutely recommend it to historical fiction readers, especially those that like a little feminism in their fiction.