Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Read Last Weekend

What I Read Last Weekend . . .

Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann -- Contemporary/Historical Fiction

Amanda Rosenbloom is in a bad place right now. She can't sleep, her married boyfriend refuses to leave his wife and she's pushing 40 and her child bearing years are coming to an end. At least she has her vintage clothing store Astor Place Vintage. When she gets a call from an elderly lady to look over some old clothes, she finds more than she bargained for when she discovers an old diary sewn inside a muff. Amanda becomes engrossed in the life of Olive Westcott, a young woman living 100 years ago in 1907 in New York. In 1907, Olive and her father have recently moved to the city where her father manages a Woolworth's. Olive thinks finally her life can begin! She means to start by working in a department store as an assistant buyer and work her way up to buyer. She'd be perfect for the job- after all, she's spent her whole life in her father's store memorizing everything about running a business. Sadly, it's 1907 and men except women to marry and stay home to raise babies. Olive wants none of that but she is curious about childbirth and what exactly happened that killed her mother. Olive attempts to beat the odds after a devastating tragedy and the stock market crash of 1907. She meets new people whose lives are totally different from hers yet they seem to be living life more fully. She learns to think hard about the issues affecting women. Olive wonders if she has the courage to live her own life no matter what anybody says or thinks. Amanda feels a strong connection with Olive as she reads the diary and soon she feels she can see and hear Olive and her friends. Amanda must do some soul searching and figure out what will truly make her happy. 

This is a moving and affecting novel that's a bit different from what I usually read. I adore old diaries and in my work as a special collections librarian I've read many many diaries. I'm a sucker for the Gilded Age, especially women's rights and this one hooked me from the title and the premise. I stayed up waaaayy too late reading because I couldn't put it down. I was surprised to learn a lot about the time period that I didn't already know. I've studied and written on Progressive Era women but this author's research went way beyond my expertise. This story fits right in with what some of my classmates have written about.The author gets an A++ from this librarian and historian for her research. There are even amazing period photographs in between each chapter. 

Now, on to the story itself. I didn't like Amanda's plot at all. I couldn't relate to her and we have nothing in common. She's whiny, selfish and annoying. She learns a little bit from Olive but the story is left open ended so we don't get to see much growth. I would have liked more about her relationship with her father. Olive, on the other hand, is a character I can really truly relate to probably more than any other character in literature (as an adult). I felt an instant connection to Olive, shouting mentally "I understand you!" Even 100 years later, a woman like Olive faces the same societal and peer pressures. Needless to say, I loved Olive. However, I felt that some of her conversations were very modern and that the author made Olive a mouthpiece for her own personal feelings. This is something I normally hate, it fit the character and her situations, but I just don't think that it was all that realistic. I've never read a real diary that's as frank as Olive's from that period and that's a big pet peeve of mine when authors write fictional diaries. I liked her story and followed her struggles eagerly turning the pages. Like Amanda, I feel bereft when I finish a diary. Unlike Amanda, I start researching what happened to the people at the end and it bothers me that we don't get all the answers. I would have liked a bit more closure to Olive's story. I liked the story for the most part but could have done without Amanda. The story really made me aware of how difficult it was for women even in 1907. Like Amanda, I tend to romanticize the past, especially the Gilded Age. The two stories parallel each other a little bit too much at times to be realistic. I expected a more direct parallel but I'm glad it wasn't. The supernatural elements annoyed me and should have been left out. I'm happy I read this book and I enjoyed it for the most part. It's not the best book I've ever read but not the worst. I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Content warning: This story deals with Olive's growing awareness of her own sexuality. There's frank discussions about how babies are made and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. There are two semi-graphic love scenes. You can skip them, but it's important to know that they happened and what happened because they serve as a turning point in the plot.

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