In early Vintage contemporariesIn an exceptionally heartfelt new novel by Slate columnist Dan Kois, two women, both named Emily, begin to become friends.
“If we were characters in a story,” says one of the Emilys, “it would be quite confusing that we were both called Emily.”
The other Emily, our point-of-view character, immediately signs up as an Emmy. The first Emily instead renames her Em.
In this small, quirky moment, Kois packs in huge amounts of information. There’s Em’s effacement, her eagerness to please, her willingness to reshape her identity around anything that seems stronger than she is. There’s Emily’s cool assertiveness, her self-esteem, her willingness to take it for granted that whatever Emily has to pick up a nickname, it certainly won’t be. hair. The light-hearted metafictional wink of if we were characters in a story notes that this is a world of people who read and who start to think about how their lives resemble the life they read about.
Most importantly, the fact that the Emilys share a name hints at the emotional core of this novel. They have one of those friendships that is so deep and so intense that the lines between identities become porous and one self overflows into the other. There are moments in it Vintage contemporaries where, despite their opposing personalities, you don’t know exactly which Emily you’re reading about at any given time.
The two Emilys meet in the much-mythologized East Village of the early 1990s: the era of ramshackle squats in abandoned buildings, of the Act Up campaign, of starving artists who could still pay rent in Manhattan. They both just graduated. Em has come to New York to become a writer and ends up working for a literary agency, where she struggles to master the realities of publishing. Em develops a location-specific production of Medea on the Brooklyn Bridge, to which she refers, a fait accomplias her escape piece.
In a light-hearted 316 pages, Kois follows the Emilys back and forth through time, from their meeting in the early ’90s, through the slow dissolution of their friendship, to their reunion as full adults in 2005. Lurking in the 14 years between the two sections is a soft melancholy: for the relationships that fell apart with time, for the dreams that never materialized, for the New York that was lost when those East Village rents skyrocketed.
Vintage contemporaries does not linger in his sorrow. Part of this novel’s argument is that books about happiness are just as worthy of celebration as books about tragically beautiful people having tragically unhappy sex and all the other trendy subjects of the day, and while it thus mourns its lost city, it never wallows in sorrow. Instead, with uncool Em as our protagonist, it makes a compelling case for such uncool things as good taste over fashionable taste, editing as a creative craft, and smart novels where everything matters as much as it ever matters in the life.
In many ways, Vintage contemporaries is a love letter to the ethos of Laurie Colwin, a writer of what she used to call “domestic sensualism”: books about basically decent people who try their best in life, often fail, and eat beautifully described foods in the process. Colwin passed away in 1992, but she and her smart and elegant domestic novels (plus cult-beloved food memoirs) enjoy a late renaissancereissued in trendy new editions in 2021. Vintage contemporaries makes it clear that the Colwinessance is long overdue, and that it aspires to follow in her very human footsteps. In this it largely succeeds.
That’s not to say there aren’t awkward moments. A 2005 office sex politics storyline comes across as somewhat clumsy, an attempt to play with the gap between Em’s 2005 perspective and the supposed 2023 reader’s mores that works better in theory than in execution.
Much stronger is the story of Em’s great creative project, which turns out not to be writing her own book, but helping someone else improve hers. As an agent’s assistant in 1991, Em stumbles upon a Colwin-esque writer of small, pretty, merry novels who has been relegated to the euphemistic marketing category of women fiction and ignored there. She is initially baffled by the books, as they are mediocre and domestic and easy to ignore, but finds herself almost compelled by them in spite of herself.
In 2005, Em experiences her writer friend experiencing an unexpected renaissance and has become the favorite project of a highly fashionable young literary man. It seems everyone now sees what Em struggled to do in 1991: that cheerful books about women’s domestic life are worthy of sustained aesthetic attention. But it takes Em’s editorial attention to make those books the best they can be.
Vintage contemporaries is of course biased when it comes to this argument. This is a beautiful and above all cheerful novel about women and their domestic and professional problems: it is the kind of book in which the characters become champions. In his sweetness and the delicacy of his approach, his radiant array of well-chosen telling details, he more than lives up to his case.