Review of Vintage Contemporaries: Walking in the Footsteps of Laurie Colwin

Got in early Vintage contemporariesIn the heartwarming new novel by Slate columnist Dan Kois, two women, both named Emily, become friends.

“If we were characters in a story,” says one of the Emilys, “it would be quite confusing if we were both named Emily.”

The other Emily, our perspective character, immediately volunteers to be Emmy. The first Emily instead renames her Em.

In this small, unusual moment, Kois packs enormous amounts of information. There is Ema’s self-deprecation, her desire to please, her willingness to reshape her identity around anything that seems stronger than her. There’s Emily’s cool confidence, her sense of self, her willingness to take it for granted that whatever moniker Emily has to take, it certainly won’t be her. An airy metafictional wink if we were characters in a story establishes that this is a world of people who read and who will think about how their lives resemble the lives they read about.

Most importantly, the fact that the Emilys share a name points to the emotional core of this novel. Their friendship is one of those so deep and so intense that the boundaries between identities become porous, and one self bleeds into the other. There are moments in Vintage contemporaries where, despite their contrasting personalities, you’re not exactly sure which Emily you’re reading about at any given moment.

The two Emilys meet in the oft-mythologized East Village of the early 1990s: the era of shabby social squats in abandoned buildings, Act Up campaigns, starving artists who could still afford Manhattan rent. They’re both fresh out of college. Em came to New York to become a writer and found herself employed at a literary agency, struggling to understand the realities of publishing. Em develops location-specific production Medea on the Brooklyn Bridge, of which she speaks, fait accomplias her breakthrough piece.

In a breezy 316 pages, Kois follows Emily back and forth through time, from their sweet encounter in the early ’90s to the slow dissolution of their friendship to their reunion as full-fledged adults in 2005. Lurking in the 14 years between the two sections is a gentle melancholy: for relationships that fell apart over time, for dreams that never came true, for a New York that was lost as East Village rents skyrocketed.

Vintage contemporaries he does not remain in his sorrow. Part of the argument of this novel is that books about happiness are just as worthy of celebration as books about tragically beautiful people having tragically bad sex and all the other trendy topics du jour, so that while he mourns his lost city, he never sinks into sadness. Instead, with uncool Em as our protagonist, it makes a compelling case for such uncool causes as good taste over fashionable taste, editing as a creative craft, and smart novels where everything matters as much as it matters in life.

In many ways, Vintage contemporaries is a love letter to the ethos of Laurie Colwin, a writer of what she called “domestic sensualism”: a book about basically decent people doing their best in life, often failing, and eating beautifully described food in the process. Colwin died in 1992, but she and her smart and elegant domestic novels (along with the cult-favorite food memoir) are enjoying a belated renaissance, having been reissued in stylish new editions in 2021. Vintage contemporaries he makes it clear that Colwinessaince is long overdue and that he aspires to follow in her very human footsteps. He mostly succeeds in that.

That’s not to say there aren’t awkward moments. The 2005 office sex-politics plot feels a bit clunky, an attempt to play with the gap between Emma’s 2005 perspective and the reader’s assumed mores of 2023 that works better in theory than in execution.

There’s a much stronger story about Emma’s big creative project, which turns out not to be writing her own book, but helping someone else improve theirs. As an agent’s assistant in 1991, Em stumbles upon a Colwin-like writer of small, lovely, cheerful novels who fall into the euphemistic marketing category women’s fiction and there ignored. At first she is confused by the books, finding them mediocre and domestic and easy to ignore, but she feels compelled to them almost in spite of herself.

In 2005, Em finds her writer friend experiencing an unexpected renaissance, after becoming the pet of a very fashionable literary young man. Everyone, it seems, now sees what Em had to struggle to see in 1991: that cheerful books about women’s family life are worthy of constant aesthetic attention. But it takes Emma’s editorial eye to make those books as good as possible.

Vintage contemporaries is, of course, biased when it comes to this argument. This is a beautiful and mostly cheerful novel about women and their family and professional struggles: it is the kind of book its characters advocate. With its sweetness and delicacy of its approach, its splendid array of well-chosen details that speak, it is more than justified.

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