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This reading group guide forAstor Place Vintageincludes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Stephanie Lehmann. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Amanda first visits Jane Kelly’s apartment to assess her clothes, she ponders, “funny how styles from your own parents’ day tend to call out with that seductive aura of nostalgia” (page 10). What era’s styles appeal you?
2. While Amanda is being hypnotized, her doctor asks her to think of a place that makes her feel “comfortable and content” (page 29), and she has some difficulty deciding on one. Why do you think it was such a challenge for her? What place would you choose?
3. Olive is both unable and unwilling to rely on financial aid from men—from her father or a potential husband—yet Amanda regularly accepts checks from her married lover, Jeff. Which of the two women seems more modern?
4. Amanda’s fascination with history was originally inspired by her collection of Time-Life books called This Fabulous Century. She thinks, “I used to pore over every word and stare at the glossy photographs with laser-like eyes trying to take in every detail and see beyond the edges to find aswers to questions I couldn’t quite put into words” (pages 74–75). Are there books in your life that have had a similar effect on you?
5. Do you think Olive’s father’s car accident was a true accident, or was it somehow suicide? If Olive had not been forced to find work to support herself after his death, in what ways might her life have turned out differently?
6. A woman of Olive’s socioeconomic background is expected to become a wife and mother; and the idea of working is considered base, and therefore shocking, to friends and family. As a store clerk she is offered low wages and few opportunities for advancement. Despite this, Olive pursues a career. How does this illustrate her character? How do Olive’s ways of dealing with change compare to Amanda’s? How are their challenges different?
7. Amanda continues to see Jeff even though she knows she shouldn’t. Why do you think it’s so hard for her to end the affair? Do you see this as weakness in her character? Does the fact that she dated Jeff before he got married affect your opinion of their affair?
8. When Amanda finds out she is not pregnant, why do you thinks she seem disappointed? How does her pregnancy scare contrast with Olive’s?
9. Psychic Lola Cotton seems to contact Olive’s dead mother, telling Olive: “‘She wants you to know . . . you must not feel guilty. She forgives you’” (page 49). Olive views this with skepticism. Is she too focused on looking forward to deal with feelings about her mother’s death?
10. Amanda wonders whether her whole life is “ruled by nostalgia.” She thinks, “The past doesn’t just go away; it lingers on. You can actually touch and see the remains, and to the extent that these souvenirs survive, the past is the present. You can’t say that for the future. . . . You can never hold the future in your hands” (page 100). Do you agree? Does Amanda spend too much of her life looking back? Why is it so hard for her to leave Jeff? What finally convinces her to do it?
11. As a single woman in the early 1900s, Olive cannot stay alone at a reputable hotel; there are women-only areas in restaurants and bars; the idea of her working is met with significant disapproval; and the Victorian attitudes about women’s sexuality leave her ignorant and unprepared. At the end of the book she thinks, “Perhaps the day will come when women exist in the world as equals to men” (page 386). Do you think that day has come? If not, do you think it ever will?
12. The theme of change as constant and unstoppable is present throughout the novel. Is the past always worth leaving behind? Is newer always better? Is it possible to strike a balance between preserving what is worthy about the past while allowing for modern developments?
13. The author leaves the story open at the end, and we never know whether Jane Kelly reads the journal, whether Amanda starts a relationship with Rob, even whether Olive and Angelina ever open a hat shop. Why do you think the author chose to end her book this way? What do you think happens to the characters? Enhance Your Book Club 1. On Stephanie Lehmann’s website dedicated to the book, www.AstorPlaceVintage.com, you can find out more about the story, read Stephanie’s blog about her passion for vintage clothing and collectables, and discover more about what it was like to live at the turn of the twentieth century. She has a growing collection of New York City historical photographs on www.VintageManhattan.com. Stephanie also has her own website, www.StephanieLehmann.com, where you can learn how she came to be an author and read about some of her thoughts on the process of writing. As a group you can contact her to ask questions or tell her about your discussion. 2. Vintage clothing and fashion are a central element in the book. Have members of your group bring (or better yet, wear) a vintage item of clothing that has special meaning to them. If they don’t have clothing, substitute an object that kindles nostalgia. Have each member take turns explaining the importance of her or his contribution. 3. Have members of your group think of a department store, or any store where they remember shopping in as a child. Is that store still there? What do you remember about shopping there? Share your stories with one another. 4. If you have access to an Italian bakery, order some pastries to enjoy at your meeting: canoli, biscotti, rum baba, and especially sfogliatelle.
A Conversation with Stephanie Lehmann
You are visible online on your personal website and book websites and on Facebook and Twitter. Do you feel these outlets bring you closer to your readers?
Absolutely. I especially like how social media makes it possible for me to enhance the novel with additional material for readers who want to know more. When I was researching Astor Place Vintage, I got completely absorbed in early twentieth century New York City, but couldn’t begin to use all I learned. There are so many great online resources, and it’s great that I can use them to share historical details and photographs on my websites.
Do you ever meet your fans in person? If so, what is the most valuable or helpful aspect of being face-to-face?
I’ve done lots of readings and enjoy speaking to book clubs. Part of the thrill of getting published is knowing that people are going to engage in a world that I’ve been immersed in for years and felt passionate about creating. But reading is a solitary, anonymous act. As the author, I don’t necessarily experience the fact that this story that is so near and dear to my heart has made an impression. Meeting people face-to-face can be a wonderful way to have a dialogue with readers.
Astor Place Vintage is your fifth novel. Does it get easier the more you write? Were there any new challenges this time?
Every time I start a new novel, I feel like I have to learn how to write one all over again. Part of this is the mental intimidation. It’s daunting to create a whole, big “something” from “nothing.” The difficulty also comes from the fact that every novel is different and inevitably poses problems that are intrinsic to the world that’s being created. I like to compare the process to doing a jigsaw puzzle while the final picture keeps changing as you’re trying to find the pieces that fit together.
Astor Place Vintage posed particular challenges because of my decision to set it in two time periods with two main characters whose narratives resonate and come together in a meaningful way. After a few drafts, I realized that it’s one thing setting out to do this and quite another to pulling it off. I began with an outline that became obsolete. It took a lot of trial and error to find my way to a story that fulfilled my intention. Almost every revision seemed to set off a domino effect of changes. Keeping track of the details could be mind-boggling. I like to tell people this novel counts as three books: Olive’s story, Amanda’s story, and the story of both of them melded together.
Each of your previous novels is set in the present, yet Astor Place Vintage explores the world of 1907 New York. What inspired you to include this historical aspect, and why did you select that time in particular?
The answer to this question seems to have taken on its own historical narrative, but here goes.
Hoping to find inspiration for a novel idea, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood library. A book by Bella Spewack called Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side, caught my eye. Bella was the name of my grandmother, who could’ve been her neighbor if she hadn’t gone straight from Ellis Island to join her father in Sacramento. And I lived on the Lower East Side when I was an NYU student. At that time, my one-room walk-up apartment was considered a coveted piece of Manhattan real estate in the “cool and trendy” East Village. But still, it was pretty decrepit, with a low ceiling, tilting floor, no kitchen, no closet, no light, a tiny bathroom, and proverbial cockroaches that roamed, especially at night. I checked out the book.
Bella Spewack’s memoir transported me back to the first two decades of the twentieth century in New York City. Having landed there, I didn’t want to leave; I launched into a slew of similarly set memoirs and novels, including 81 Sheriff Street by Gertrude Ford, Out of the Shadow by Rose Cohen, Jews Without Money by Michael Gold, Christ in Concrete by Pietro Di Donato, The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan, Empty Pockets by Rupert Hughes, Susan Lennox: Her Fall and Rise by David Graham Phillips, and Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska,
The idea of writing a novel taking place in New York City in the early part of the twentieth century would seem to have chosen me. Except I still had no idea what that novel might be.
Next came a trip down to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. I went on their tour of apartments done up to look just as they had when people lived at that address between 1863 and 1935. I couldn’t help but notice . . . these apartments were quite similar to my old East Village apartment. Wow. I’d lived in a place worthy of being a museum exhibit—an authentic tenement straight from history, still standing, still being used! Forgive me if I sound like I’ve had too much coffee, but in a way, New York is a living museum. Every street offers some historical revelation that you can only hope will survive the city’s never-ending makeovers.
I still didn’t know how to turn any of this into a novel. But I was more sensitized to the past that surrounded me and began to think differently about my current apartment, where I lived with my husband and two kids. The building went up in 1928. How many families had lived there over the years? I tried to picture people walking from room to room, or looking at themselves in the same built-in mirrors on my bathroom doors. Who slept in my bedroom? Did they have a bed against the same wall? I wished I could see the clothes that used to hang in my closets. What tragedies and celebrations took place in these rooms? Did anyone ever die in these rooms? Did anyone give birth?
The idea of writing a novel that takes place in two time periods took hold. Someone in the present would connect with someone in the past. But who were they? And what were their stories? And how did they connect? Should it take place on the Lower East Side? I still wasn’t sure. One thing I did know: they’d both be women. I can’t help being more interested in the experiences of living as a female. Still, no story idea came to mind.
Around this point a book I once borrowed from my mother, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola by Rachel Bowlby, called out to me from my bookshelf. I’d tried reading it before, attracted by its fun subject of shopping, but had found it too academic. Now I tried again, and this time my interest was piqued by one of the novels she analyzes The Ladies Paradise by Émile Zola, which centered on people who work in a huge department store in 1860s Paris.
Department stores. I had fond memories of going downtown in San Francisco when I was a kid to shop at Macy’s, the Emporium, City of Paris, and I. Magnin. As a matter of fact, I always thought those happy memories were part of why I was drawn to New York. Downtown San Francisco and the streets of Manhattan were both conducive to my favorite state of being: having lots of people around me with no obligation to speak with them.
I was intrigued enough with Zola’s novel to bypass the library and actually purchase a copy. Before I was done reading The Ladies Paradise, I knew I wanted the historical sections of my novel to include the setting of a department store. Not the present time sections, though—department stores of today are so dull compared to shopping on the Internet. I love vintage clothes, though, so why not have my present-day character own a vintage clothing store? It made perfect sense. The modern character would romanticize the past, and the character from the past would aspire to be modern.
I still needed to know when my character from the past lived. Initially, I was attracted to the second decade of the 1900s because the style of dresses was so beautiful then—less corseted, with the empire waist in favor. But as my plot took shape, I realized it made sense to set the novel one decade earlier, during the financial panic of 1907. The fashions of that year didn’t appeal to me as much, but I was mature enough to accept that what the characters wore couldn’t be the decisive factor.
Finally, I was ready to start writing.
Your character Amanda has a love for vintage clothing. Do you share her passion? On your website you discuss hunts for “junktique.” Is that more of a draw for you than clothing?
I love going to flea markets and thrift stores, and might be a hoarder. My first vintage obsession was 1930s kitchenware, inspired by a set of bowls inherited from my grandmother. Now, my dining room is filled with cabinets of dishware that will never be used for an actual meal, a collection of vintage paper napkins that shall never wipe a face, greeting cards never to be sent, and shelves of vintage books—most of which I’ve read. Because I like to sew, I also have stacks of vintage fabrics and jars full of vintage buttons that are waiting for me to stop writing and get crafty.
As for vintage clothes, one closet in my apartment is crammed with dresses from the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. They aren’t for wearing, so I don’t restrict myself to buying what fits. Most of them would make too much of a statement for me to feel comfortable in public. So it’s not that I want to be looked at while wearing one of these dresses; I buy them because looking at them gives me pleasure. I might be attracted to the pattern of the fabric, the styling, some particular way the piece conjures a decade . . . or it might just be from an amused sense of “What was that designer thinking?” Also, they were all cheap. I only buy vintage when I’m getting a good deal.
You write about New York, both in the early 1900s and now, with the insight of a true New Yorker. As a native of San Francisco, what originally drew you to New York City? What keeps you there?
I was accepted into the graduate English programs at New York University and also the University of Washington. I’d visited New York a couple times before, hated it, and thought anyone who chose to live there had to be crazy. Seattle, on the other hand, I knew to be beautiful, clean, and filled with “slacker” types like me. But everyone said that New York City was the place to go if I seriously wanted to “be a writer.” I turned Seattle down.
My second semester at NYU, I began dating a guy who was in one of my writing workshops. He happened to be a native New Yorker, and our relationship made it easier for me to get used to the city. About a year later, I moved in with him. Eventually we got married. By then I’d fallen in love—with the city, that is. Sometimes I wonder . . . if I’d gone to school in Washington, would I have married a lumberjack, stayed in Seattle, and written novels set in the Pacific Northwest?
You are married with children, yet the two main characters in the book are single and childless, possibly not by choice for Amanda but in Olive’s case, most decidedly. Each character expresses curiosity about motherhood. Did anything in your experience inform this aspect of the book?
I’ve always focused on aspects of sexuality that challenge my female main characters, so it was only natural for me to delve into how Olive and Amanda grapple, each in her own way, with the prospect of being childless.
This novel is about two businesswomen. They’re passionate about their work, and they’re conflicted about motherhood and marriage. But the potential to have a child is integral to every woman’s existence. After all, a woman lives in a body that is equipped to give birth. She grows breasts that are designed to feed an infant, and bleeds out of her vagina for a few days every month from her teen years until menopause. This goes on whether she ever gets pregnant or not.
I think it’s amazing how invisible the act of menstruation is in our society. By all appearances, it isn’t happening. We’ve managed to keep blood and its stains underneath our clothing and out of sight. But blood is extremely, even unrelentingly, present in the daily life of a woman—much more than in a man’s. This is why I wanted to include a realistic sense of the anticipation, arrival, and presence of blood for my characters.
You include elements of magical realism to enhance your story. Why did you decide to do this?
I don’t lean toward mystical or supernatural ways of thinking, and I didn’t originally intend to have those elements in the novel. As a matter of fact, in my original concept, the novel was primarily about Olive, and Amanda’s story was much less important. I thought she’d mainly serve to bookend the story from the past. But Amanda’s role gradually expanded until finally I reached the point of alternating every chapter between the two characters.
In the process of intertwining their stories, I needed to make sure their narratives had a consistent connection, so I began to play with heightening Amanda’s sense of being haunted by Olive. Apart from adding some mystery, I think it works to bring the reader in more viscerally to Amanda’s fascination with the past and her sense that Olive “speaks to her,” or resonates, on an emotional level.
The blurring of reality and fantasy is something I do experience as a writer. Since I’m constantly visiting the make-believe world of the novel, the characters can take on a life of their own. So, for example, I occasionally walk up Sixth Avenue and stare at the building where Siegel-Cooper used to be – now primarily occupied by a Bed, Bath & Beyond. I’ve had to remind myself that Olive and Angelina never actually worked in that building, and, oh yes, they didn’t exist.
The ending of Astor Place Vintage is left relatively open, with a few questions unanswered. Do you feel it is more authentic to not have the ending neatly tied together?
Yes, it’s more authentic and more in keeping with the themes of the novel.
Amanda remembers staring at the pages of her Time-Life books wishing, she could see beyond the edges. She wants to know more about the people in the photographs and what they were thinking. Olive’s journal gives her a chance to do this. But as Amanda reaches the last entries, she dreads finishing. This is partially because she’s afraid of what she’ll find out, but it’s also because she doesn’t want to say good-bye to Olive.
When she does finish, parts of Olive’s story are unresolved and Amanda goes to Jane Kelly, hoping for resolution. While she does tie up some loose ends, she also accepts that what’s past is past and the entire story can never be known. I think it’s important for the reader to experience that same sense of loss along with Amanda.
In earlier drafts, I experimented with giving Amanda more of a chance to question Jane Kelly about what happens to Olive and Angelina after the journal ends. I was never satisfied with these exchanges. Jane Kelly’s answers didn’t fool me: the author was obviously making arbitrary executive decisions about the fates of these two women.
I do think the important questions are answered enough to satisfy the reader.
Once the story lines of Amanda and Olive come together, and the dramatic action comes to a climax, the story needs to wind down and there’s only so much more that can be told. Beyond that, one can guess, based on character, what will happen to a character, but supplying too much information feels false.
Are you currently working on a new project? Will you continue the story lines of Olive or Amanda in any future novels?
I’m working on another historical idea. It doesn’t involve Olive or Amanda. But I do like to think about what other interesting item of clothing Amanda might come across, so you never know!
Stephanie Lehmann received her BA at UC Berkeley and a MA in English from New York University. She has taught novel writing at Mediabistro and online at Salon.com, where her essays have been published. She currently lives in New York City. Visit her online at StephanieLehmann.com and AstorPlaceVintage.com.