Review: ‘Vintage Contemporaries’ affectionate ode to ’90s NY

NEW YORK (AP) — “Vintage Contemporaries,” By Dan Kois (Harper)

Emily Thiel, fresh to New York City by way of college and Wausau, Wisconsin, often has her nose stuck in a book. It’s 1991, so it’s usually a Vintage Contemporary — a Random House imprint started in 1984 that showcased new authors with striking graphic covers featuring dot matrix accents and blocks of color.

Emily feels out of place in the big city until she meets a brash fellow newcomer who already seems to have the city in the palm of her hand, also named Emily (“If we were characters in a story,” the new Emily notes, “It would be pretty confusing that we are both named Emily.”).

Together, the two explore lower Manhattan and all it has to offer in the 1990s: pierogis at Veselka, book shopping at St. Marks Bookstore, Hal Hartley movies from Kim’s Video Store, Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” and defending squats near Tomkins Square Park.

Meanwhile, our original Emily, a literary agent assistant, discovers and helps publish a novel by Lucy Deming, a writer of cozy but overlooked novels — the character is based on novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin — and the two form a lasting friendship.

Author Kois, a Slate editor, peppers the book with references to Vintage Contemporaries throughout. He usually doesn’t name them, but a “Notes” section in the back helps identify them for sleuths. He also includes Lorraine Louie, the actual graphic designer who came up with the groundbreaking Vintage Contemporary cover style, as a minor character.

The story alternates between the 1990s and the 2000s as the characters’ relationships cleave apart and come together again, buffeted by life circumstances. Lovers of used paperbacks and 1990s nostalgia will find a lot to like about this wholesome debut novel, and are likely to leave it with a new book recommendation or two.

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