FICTION: A debut about books, friendship and parenthood set in New York City.
"Vintage Contemporaries" by Dan Kois; Harper (336 pages, $27.99)
One night, Emily has an improbable yet memorable encounter in a New York City diner. She is eating alone when another young woman — a perfect stranger — slides into the booth opposite her and helps herself to her last dumpling. She turns out to be called Emily, too. The happy coincidence prompts the pair to claim they were fated to be friends. "If we were characters in a story," says one Emily to the other, "it would be pretty confusing that we were both named Emily."
The two Emilys are indeed characters in a story — Slate editor Dan Kois' debut novel. To prevent confusion, Kois has the food-stealing Emily rechristen her new friend Em. For a while, "Vintage Contemporaries" gives equal weight to Em and Emily. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Em is the dominant force and Emily one of several pivotal figures in her life. Kois shows how that life pans out over the course of 16 years, charting Em's various struggles and successes while tracing the contours of, and fault lines within, her friendship with Emily.
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The first part of the book sees Em, originally from Wisconsin, trying to find her feet in New York in 1991. She sublets a dingy apartment with her best friend from college and works as an assistant at a literary agency run by a "lunatic." When she meets her namesake, opposites attract.
Loose-living, no-nonsense Emily directs plays, lives in a Lower East Side squat and takes part in protests. Em allows herself to be swept along and carried away by Emily's energy. During quieter moments she bonds with Lucy, a single mom and overlooked writer who hopes it will be third time lucky with her new novel.
Fast forward to 2005 and much has changed. Em is now an editor at a publishing house and lives in Upper Manhattan with her lawyer husband and their baby. Lucy has died and her books are out of print. But when she receives posthumous praise from certain literary luminaries, Em sets out to honor her by reissuing her work.
Em's other key friendship, with Emily, foundered, and she continues to feel "the absence of a woman her age who knew her to her bones." Then, after six years apart, comes an opportunity to forgive, recognize differences and forge a new alliance.
The Em-and-Emily relationship is the novel's core strength, and "spark plug" Emily powers many of the scenes. Unfortunately, when she is not around, the narrative loses momentum, not least during the overlong episodes devoted to parenthood. Kois misses a chance to inject some much-needed grit into the proceedings by glossing over the heroin addiction which drove a wedge between the women.
"Vintage Contemporaries" is at its most engaging when Em is navigating the cutthroat world of publishing, and when she and Emily are bright lights in a big city, rebels with a cause and "two halves of one whole."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.