I was recently contacted, out of the blue, by a traditionally-published author for an honest review of her latest novel (tell me, how cool is that?). Although I already had the book on my Goodreads "To Read" shelf, I was afraid I might hate it. And then what? Unlike some, I would never trash a novel after being asked to review it. But at the same time, I couldn't very well accept a free copy and then not post a review--at least not without telling the author why I didn't enjoy her book enough to want to write about it. (Having been on the opposite end of this ruthless "numbers game," and having had my own book offerings met with silence more times than I can count, I understand firsthand how elusive and demoralizing the process of pursuing positive reviews can be.)

Well, I needn't have worried! I enjoyed Stephanie Lehmann's Astor Place Vintage far more than I expected. It is a seamlessly-woven tale about two women living a century apart but connected by a weird combination of mystical and historical phenomena. Amanda Rosenbloom, a Manhattan vintage clothing dealer battling insomnia and exhaustion, stumbles upon Olive Wescott’s diary (written in 1907-08) while purchasing garments from an eccentric old lady. Amanda becomes enthralled by Olive’s fascinating journal entries, which seem to bring the turn-of-the century protagonist eerily to life. But this isn’t a novel about time travel so much as an imaginative, well-executed story about the interconnectedness of two human souls through time and space.

The chapters narrated by Olive offer a marvelous glimpse at feminism’s “first wave” in the form of Olive’s personal challenges as a single woman living and working in the same lower-East Side neighborhood now inhabited by Amanda, but during a far more conventional and inequitable era. Through equally engaging past and present-day narratives, Astor Place Vintage provides an eye-opening education into the plight of women at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ripple effect their disenchantment had on future generations. Second- and third-wave feminists often forget that an oppressed crop of feisty females laid the groundwork for the feminist surge that took place during the Sixties and Seventies. Women like Olive were not only unable to vote, but also faced societal norms that would keep them both ignorant of their biology and tacitly dependent on men’s physical needs for their financial survival (whether through the “legitimizing” marriage marketplace or the unsanctioned trade of sexual favors in exchange for financial ones). Outside of marriage, women of that era had few viable means of garnering a living wage, much less partaking equally in social and civic life alongside their male counterparts.

Olive experiences this injustice firsthand when a devastating setback forces her to find work and fend for herself. I was reminded of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth in the way Olive had to cope with socioeconomic restraints and sexual mores stacked squarely against women in general, but especially unmarried ones. Readers will easily understand why Olive’s warmhearted co-worker friend, Angelina, supplemented her meager wages by “keeping company” with a wealthy married man. However, ostensibly independent Amanda—a modern-day businesswoman who clearly should know better—strikes a far less defensible bargain by accepting financial help from her married boyfriend, Jeff.  Although the fact that he was her high school sweetheart makes their affair somewhat less detestable, I found Amanda rather vexing at times (as I am sure the author intended). Lehmann’s irresolute protagonist yearns for motherhood, yet remains hopelessly embroiled in a dead-end relationship, knowingly trading her prime childbearing years for financial support and erratic male companionship. Though frustrating, I found Amanda’s dilemma both plausible and authentic—and not all that different from Olive’s in the sense that, unlike men, women have a biologically finite time frame within which to link up with a man if we want to create families of our own, and still find it emotionally challenging and less than desirable to remain child-free by choice.

Replete with fertile scenes and mounting emotional tension, Astor Place Vintage climaxes with a masterful birthing event that sets this novel apart for its realism and suspense. Until then, it’s an easygoing thrill ride with just a hint of understated edginess. But that passage—including the forthright discussion that follows between Olive and the Johnny-come-lately doctor—imbue this otherwise pleasurable novel with an important substantive component that makes it worthy of “must read” stature as contemporary women’s fiction and historical fiction. (And lest anyone doubt that women could be as ignorant as Olive when it came to sex and reproduction, I can personally attest that my mother, born in 1917, misinformed me that a woman is most likely to conceive immediately before her period. I definitely got a chuckle over Olive’s ongoing confusion over that erroneous detail!) 

A simply delightful read from first page to last, I didn’t want Astor Place Vintage to end. Nevertheless, Stephanie Lehmann wraps it up neatly and convincingly, leaving the reader perfectly sated yet still longing for more. As for those readers who accept a free book and promise a review but don't follow through, I guess silence beats a public one-star "trashing."