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Astrid Sees All


Astrid Sees All

It’s not uncommon to lament the death of old New York --- a pre-gentrification city a bit edgier and less slick than the one that exists today. But those longing for a return to Manhattan’s grittier past may think twice about their nostalgia after reading ASTRID SEES ALL, a coming-of-age novel about a drifting college grad trying to find herself in 1980s New York.

In her adult fiction debut, YA author Natalie Standiford takes readers back in time to New York’s good old bad days in the East Village in 1984, when artists and musicians slept in sketchy squats and junkies took up residence in Tompkins Square Park. It’s a world far removed from that of Phoebe Hayes’ Baltimore childhood, as well as the more staid Upper West Side neighborhood where she lands after graduating from Brown. But the neighborhood’s strangeness --- and the undercurrent of danger --- is exactly what makes it appealing to Phoebe. She’s floundering after an affair gone sour and the sudden death of her father. “I wanted to get lost,” she says.

"[A]s a portrait of a now-lost slice of slightly seedy bohemian New York, ASTRID SEES ALL can’t help but enchant."

Fortunately for Phoebe, she has a friend from college, the magnetic Carmen, who is possessed of just the right mix of moxie and connections to help her fall off the map. The two have known each other since their freshman year, though it’s a lopsided friendship. Phoebe constantly feels she has to prove herself interesting to the more sophisticated Carmen, a New York City native with artist parents, a heroin addict boyfriend, and a stint in a psychiatric hospital already under her belt (though, much to her dismay, not at Silver Hill, where one-time Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick “had done time”).

The women move into a cheap apartment on Avenue A and set about turning themselves into downtown scenesters. Phoebe transforms herself into “Astrid the Star Girl,” the house fortune teller at Plutonium, a nightclub that is the place to be (and be seen). Her gimmick is predicting the future using movie ticket stubs. Carmen dabbles in playwriting and has an affair with an up-and-coming painter. Their lives are fun and exciting, but there’s darkness lurking on the edges. Friends overdose, people fall ill (though the AIDS epidemic is, somewhat oddly, never mentioned by name), and wayward girls mysteriously disappear. “Don’t you feel it all around us? This sense of doom?” one character asks.

When Phoebe betrays Carmen, it fractures their fragile friendship (though Carmen has her own way of wounding her insecure roommate). Soon, Phoebe finds her life spinning out of control --- she’s developed a nasty coke habit, her romantic life is in shambles, and a strange man seems to be following her home at night. Standiford excels at bringing old-school New York to life, from the wild nights at Plutonium to the ugly reality of drug addiction. But like her characters, she sometimes overdoes it. For one, she can’t resist a celebrity cameo. Warhol puts in a brief appearance, as do Tatum O’Neal, Lou Reed and Christopher Walken. John F. Kennedy Jr., a classmate of Carmen and Phoebe’s at Brown, appears several times, a distant, dazzling star. But these famous faces are window dressing (not unlike the living window displays at Plutonium) that distract from the core story of a young woman overcome with uncertainty about the world and her place in it.

The zeitgeisty details give ASTRID SEES ALL a you-had-to-be-there authenticity, but at times they come at the expense of storytelling. Standiford crams a lot into her slim novel, between Phoebe’s grief over her father’s death, the ripple effects of a doomed relationship with an older man, and the shifting dynamics of her friendship with Carmen. Plus, there are all those girls on the missing posters and the strange figures Phoebe sometimes sees lurking in the shadows. At first, it all seems like an obvious metaphor for her own lostness and the darkness she’s trying desperately to keep at bay.

That is, until a shocking denouement reveals a very real horror stalking the streets of the East Village. Standiford doesn’t manage to pull off this abrupt twist, which arrives too late and is resolved too quickly to fit seamlessly with the rest of the story. Likewise, the eventual resolution to Carmen and Phoebe’s falling out feels forced and unearned. But as a portrait of a now-lost slice of slightly seedy bohemian New York, ASTRID SEES ALL can’t help but enchant.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on April 9, 2021

Astrid Sees All
by Natalie Standiford

  • Publication Date: February 15, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982153660
  • ISBN-13: 9781982153663