Astor Place Vintage (Lehmann)

Astor Place Vintage 
Stephanie Lehmann, 2013
Simon & Schuster
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451682052

Amanda Rosenbloom, proprietor of Astor Place Vintage, thinks she’s on just another call to appraise and possibly purchase clothing from a wealthy, elderly woman. But after discovering a journal sewn into a fur muff, Amanda gets much more than she anticipated.

The pages of the journal reveal the life of Olive Westcott, a young woman who had moved to Manhattan in 1907. Olive was set on pursuing a career as a department store buyer in an era when Victorian ideas, limiting a woman’s sphere to marriage and motherhood, were only beginning to give way to modern ways of thinking.

As Amanda reads the journal, her life begins to unravel until she can no longer ignore this voice from the past. Despite being separated by one hundred years, Amanda finds she’s connected to Olive in ways neither could ever have imagined. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—San Francisco, California, USA
Education—B.A., University of California-Berkeley; M.F.A.,
   New York University
Currently—lives in New York City, New York

Stephanie Lehmann grew up in San Francisco, wrapping herself in warm sweaters and bingeing on television. Wanting early on to be a writer, she talked her parents into buying her an electric typewriter and, at the age of 12, began writing short stories. Thus began her first experience with rejection letters.

Lehmann received her B.A. in psychology from the University of California-Berkeley and finally, screwing up her courage, moved to New York City. She attended New York University's graduate program in creative writing and received her M.A. She married a fellow student from her writing program who is an English teacher. The two live in New York, watch television together, and have grown children.

Stephanie Lehmann is the author of several books: Astor Place Vintage (2013), You Could Do Better (2006), The Art of Undressing (2005), Are You In the Mood (2004), and Thoughts While Having Sex (2003). (For the longer, funnier biography see the author's website.)

Book Reviews
(Starred review.) Enchanting.... [T]he stories of two New York women a century apart, interweaving their lives through playful synchronicity and hints of the supernatural. The present-day timeline involves Amanda Rosenbloom, who owns the eponymous Astor Place Vintage clothing store and....[who] discovers the 1907 diary of Olive Westcott, an upper-class woman who dreamed of becoming a department store buyer.... Lehmann does a seamless job of moving between the past and present and gives a definite sense of place to the story’s two periods.... First-class storytelling with an enticing dose of New York City history.
Publishers Weekly

The past meets the present in Lehmann's work of feminist literary fiction. In 2007, 39-year-old Amanda... finds a journal, started in 1907 by a woman named Olive.... These two women are separated by a century but have a lot in common. Olive is rebelling against the 19th-century concept of a woman's "place" in society, and Amanda feels herself caught between two historic eras.... The author combines an impressive knowledge of history, sociology and psychology to create an intellectually and emotionally rewarding story.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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