Author Picks: 9 Nostalgic NYC Reads Through the Decades

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Natalie Standiford is the author of Astrid Sees All, which was selected as an Indie Next Pick by independent booksellers. She lives in New York City with her husband and two cats. Visit her at nataliestandiford.com.

I’ve lived in New York City since 1983. When I first arrived, I wandered around in an excited daze, thinking, I can’t believe I actually live here, and sometimes I still feel that way, even though the city has changed a lot. Astrid Sees All follows a young woman seeking thrills in the bohemian New York of the 1980s, and while writing it I enjoyed revisiting—if only in my imagination—the wild, tumultuous East Village I used to know. The city changes constantly, yet it never loses its essential New Yorkiness, the magic that draws adventurous newcomers year after year. What is the nature of that magic? Here are nine books set in the city—one for each of the last nine decades—that hint at the answer.

Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles

1930s

Part of New York’s charm is the feeling that anything could happen here. Just step out your door and you could meet a movie star, your favorite writer, or the love of your life. A chance encounter sets this stylish novel in motion: in a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katie Kontent and her roommate, Eve, meet a handsome man in a cashmere coat named Tinker Grey, and suddenly their lives get a lot more glamorous. By turns funny and melancholy, like all the best New York stories, this novel evokes martinis, black-and-white movies, and satin dresses cut on the bias.

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Rules of Civility
Amor Towles

On the last night of 1937, Katey Content encounters Tinker Grey in a Greenwich Village jazz bar. Though they come from completely different worlds, they forge a friendship that will last decades and bring Katey, with her sass, smarts, and sincerity, to the heights of New York society.

Read a review of RULES OF CIVILITY here.

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City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert

1940s

In 1940, after getting kicked out of Vassar, Vivian Morris goes to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg in Manhattan’s Theater District. Aunt Peg taps Vivian to make costumes for the ramshackle theater company she runs, and soon Vivian is learning about showbiz, drinking, sex, and other facts of life from the chorus girls and stage divas who befriend her. What begins as a fizzy tale of sequins, feathers, and gossip columns becomes a frank, bracingly modern story about the real problems and heartaches of New York women.

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City of Girls
Elizabeth Gilbert

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The Best of Everything
by Rona Jaffe

1950s

This juicy saga follows three young women who work in publishing as they grapple with cads, married men, sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancies, sexism, and heartbreak—as well as success and romance. I identified most with the ambitious Caroline Bender; thirty years after she tackled the slush pile at the fictional Fabian Publications, I became an editorial assistant and found that, in many ways, the job hadn’t changed. A soapy page-turner bubbling with Midtown-at-rush-hour energy and a surprisingly rebellious ending. (Warning: The movie has a different [very conventional and far inferior ending]—read the book instead!)

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The Best of Everything
Rona Jaffe

The story of five young women employed at a New York publishing company, this classic electrified readers when it was first published in 1958. Following the women’s adventures with intelligence and sympathy, it remains touchingly true to the personal and professional struggles that women face.

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Dominicana
by Angie Cruz

1960s

Very often, a New York story is an immigrant’s story. Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción’s family pressures her to marry Juan Ruiz and emigrate with him from the Dominican Republic to New York, hoping they’ll eventually be allowed to follow. In the meantime, Ana finds herself alone in a strange country with a gruff man she barely knows, struggling to navigate a new city, a foreign culture, and a difficult marriage. The Upper Manhattan of the mid-1960s comes to life here, from the bodegas and botanicas and dance clubs to the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was shot. Dominican culture still thrives in New York; it’s fascinating to read about its roots in the city, and about the joys, sorrows, and sacrifices of Dominican immigrants as seen through the eyes of a smart, sensitive teenage girl.

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Dominicana
Angie Cruz

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The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
by Dawnie Walton

1970s

When British rocker Nev Charles chooses her as his musical partner, bold, flamboyant Opal Robinson leaves Detroit to make a splash in New York as singer Opal Jewel. Her first impression of the city is that “everything was so extra—extra hot, extra funky, extra loud.” She records a groundbreaking album while struggling, as a Black woman, with endemic racism and sexism in the rock music scene. Structured as an oral history reported by a journalist with a painful connection to Opal, this novel reads at first like a riveting magazine profile but builds to a stunning ending that reverberates long after you’ve closed the book.

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The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
Dawnie Walton

A kaleidoscopic fictional oral history of the beloved rock ’n’ roll duo who shot to fame in 1970s New York, and the dark, fraught secret that lies at the peak of their stardom.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

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Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerney

1980s

Famous for its effective second-person narration—“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning”—BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY has long been considered the quintessential eighties novel. The narrator, a young man whose fashion-model wife has recently left him, tries to numb his sorrow with constant partying and “Bolivian Marching Powder,” until he loses nearly everything he has. I devoured this book while living on the fringes of the world it depicts—the decadent downtown scene of the 1980s—and wondered whether a life of reckless partying would have different consequences for a young woman than for a man. ASTRID SEES ALL is, in part, my answer to that question.

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Bright Lights, Big City
Jay McInerney

Perhaps the quintessential ’80s novel, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY follows a young man as he weaves his way through the party scene, publishing offices, and pretty people of Manhattan. With nothing but illicit substances to sustain him, it’s a troubling but remarkable portrait of youth and New York life in this decade.

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The Falconer
by Dana Czapnik

1990s

Seventeen-year-old Lucy Adler is a street-smart Upper West Sider with a gift for basketball and a crush on her best friend, Percy. The city around her is rapidly changing, reflecting her turmoil and confusion as she explores the meaning of love and her identity as an athlete and as a girl. The New York of the nineties can be heard in her jangly, slangy street talk, inspired by the rhythms of the city: playing pickup games in Riverside Park; sharing joints and secrets on the roof; taking the subway to the prom in a halter dress and strappy sandals; avoiding the hordes in Times Square to spend New Year’s Eve in a diner, just you and your best friend.

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The Falconer
Dana Czapnik

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Asymmetry
by Lisa Halliday

2000s

The first half of this novel, “Folly,” starts, like RULES OF CIVILITY, with a serendipitous New York encounter. Alice, an editorial assistant and aspiring writer, meets Ezra, a famous, much older novelist, on a park bench, and they soon begin an affair. (The author had an affair with Philip Roth when she was young, which lends the story a juicy frisson.) Alice is eager to learn whatever she can from Ezra—about writing, about being an artist, and about the romantic pleasures of living in New York. Casting a shadow over the excitement of this lopsided romance is the numbness tangible in post-9/11 New York. The fallout from 9/11 plays a more explicit role in the second half of the book, “Madness,” which follows the interrogation of a Brooklyn-raised Iraqi economist, and which connects to Alice’s story in a surprising and clever way.

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Asymmetry
Lisa Halliday

A TIME and NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR * New York Times Notable Book and Times Critic’s Top Book of 2018

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2018 BY * Elle * Bustle * Kirkus Reviews * Lit Hub* NPR * O, The Oprah Magazine * Shelf Awareness

The bestselling and critically acclaimed debut novel by Lisa Halliday, hailed as “extraordinary” by The New York Times, “a brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war” by The Wall Street Journal, and “a literary phenomenon” by The New Yorker.

Told in three distinct and uniquely compelling sections, Asymmetry explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice. The first section, “Folly,” tells the story of Alice, a young American editor, and her relationship with the famous and much older writer Ezra Blazer. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, “Folly” also suggests an aspiring novelist’s coming-of-age. By contrast, “Madness” is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American man who, on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, is detained by immigration officers and spends the last weekend of 2008 in a holding room in Heathrow. These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda.

A stunning debut from a rising literary star, Asymmetry is “a transgressive roman a clef, a novel of ideas, and a politically engaged work of metafiction” (The New York Times Book Review), and a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word” (The Atlantic). Lisa Halliday’s novel will captivate any reader with while also posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself.

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Insomniac City
by Bill Hayes

2010s

Photographer Bill Hayes moved from San Francisco to New York in 2009 after the death of his partner. He fell in love with the city and, soon after, with the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. This poetic memoir evokes the energy and pleasures of Manhattan in fragments—images that catch Bill’s eye as he roams the city, and anecdotes about the people he encounters in his daily life. Reading INSOMNIAC CITY during the pandemic made me long for the days of packed subway cars, sweaty parties, crowded restaurants, and the little interactions at the bodega or the newsstand that we’ve had to avoid this past year. This bittersweet tribute to Oliver Sacks makes a convincing argument that New York City is the best place in the world to fall in love.

The 2020s will surely bring fresh tales of a New York awakening from its pandemic slumber. I can’t wait to read them.

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Insomniac City
Bill Hayes

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Astrid Sees All
by Natalie Standiford

ASTRID SEES ALL comes out on 4/6!

New York, 1984: Twenty-two-year-old Phoebe Hayes is a young woman in search of excitement and adventure. But the recent death of her father has devastated her. With her best friend Carmen, she escapes to the East Village, disappearing into an underworld haunted by artists, It Girls, and lost souls trying to party their pain away. Carmen juggles her junkie-poet boyfriend and a sexy painter while, as Astrid the Star Girl, Phoebe tells fortunes in a nightclub and plots her revenge on Ivan, the older man who painfully wronged her.

When the intoxicating brew of sex, drugs, and self-destruction leads Phoebe to betray her friend, Carmen disappears, and Phoebe begins an unstoppable descent into darkness. She may have a chance to save herself—and Carmen, if she can find her—but to do it she must face what’s hiding in the shadows she’s been running from—within her heart and in the dangerous midnight streets.

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Astrid Sees All
Natalie Standiford

Most Anticipated: The Great First Half 2021 by The Millions

New York’s last bohemia—the glittering, decadent downtown club scene of the 1980s—is the setting for this brilliantly winning novel about a smart, vulnerable young woman taking a deep dive into her dark side, essential for fans of Sweetbitter, Fleabag, and books by Patti Smith.

New York, 1984: Twenty-two-year-old Phoebe Hayes is a young woman in search of excitement and adventure. But the recent death of her father has so devastated her that her mother wants her to remain home in Baltimore to recover. Phoebe wants to return to New York, not only to chase the glamorous life she so desperately craves but also to confront Ivan, the older man who painfully wronged her.

With her best friend Carmen, she escapes to the East Village, disappearing into an underworld haunted by artists, It Girls, and lost souls trying to party their pain away. Carmen juggles her junkie-poet boyfriend and a sexy painter while, as Astrid the Star Girl, Phoebe tells fortunes in a nightclub and plots her revenge on Ivan.

When the intoxicating brew of sex, drugs, and self-destruction leads Phoebe to betray her friend, Carmen disappears, and Phoebe begins an unstoppable descent into darkness. She may have a chance to save herself—and Carmen, if she can find her—but to do it she must face what’s hiding in the shadows she’s been running from—within her heart and in the dangerous midnight streets.

A love letter to gritty 1980s New York City, Astrid Sees All is an irresistible, original novel about female friendship, sex and romance, and what it’s like to be a young woman searching for an identity.

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