Book Review: Drama and Chaos of 80s NYC in "Astrid Sees All"

The Fiction Addiction

Astrid Sees All, by Natalie Standiford, is about both a youthful embrace of all the experiences offered in 1980s Manhattan, and about running headlong into self-destruction. 

New grad Phoebe follows her wild college friend Carmen to Manhattan, where the two dive right into drugs, clubs and men. It's a terribly unbalanced friendship, with Carmen firmly in the lead and Phoebe just trying to seem cool enough to tag along. This constantly reminds readers just how young Phoebe is. Carmen, with artistic, wealthy parents and a family apartment in Manhattan, is sheltered from a lot of possible consequences, but that only makes Carmen take bigger, wilder risks. And can anyone really be sheltered from addiction or heartbreak? 

Phoebe should be reeling from her father's recent death, but instead her insistence that she is just fine comes through in every action she takes. Again, this shows her youth and makes the decisions she faces more intense. Phoebe is often disconnected from her own emotions, which makes the moments when she can't avoid her feelings so much more dramatic.  It's a compelling story, even when Phoebe makes self-destructive decisions. 

The eighties club scene is glamorous and gritty by turns, with pretty much endless coke. Eighties music and fashion make the backdrop, but this is an engaging coming-of-age story with a stylish retro aesthetic, not a total nostalgia barrage. (I'm looking at you, Ready Player One.) 

As "Astrid the Star Girl", Phoebe lands a gig telling fortunes, through her unique divination method of pulling three movie ticket stubs. This started as a private ritual, but with a fashionable turban the Carmen stole-borrowed for her, it's a niche side act for 1980s nightclubs. This is Phoebe's entrance to a world of glamorous celebs, wild nights, and payment in powder. When she spends her nights as Astrid the Star Girl, Phoebe's forced to discover what she might be besides just Carmen's sidekick.

Astrid Sees All tells not just Phoebe's story, but all about the clubs and drugs and adventure of Manhattan in the eighties.  This is a great setting, but telling so many stories leads to the kind of overfull and meandering plot that gets novels labeled that backhanded "ambitious." There's just so much crammed in, including a storyline about missing girls in the village. I thought the constant references to the Missing posters were heavy-handed reminders of all the dangers awaiting young girls in Manhattan, and I was totally unprepared for the resolution of that plot. Actually, that sums up my feelings on most of the book. Whenever I thought something was leaning too heavy-handedly symbolic, there was a dramatic, surprising twist.  

Readers who enjoyed novels like Everybody Rise and Sweetbitter will enjoy this coming-of-age story about gritty and exciting club nights.

Astrid Sees All is by Natalie Standiford and will be published by Atria Books on April 6, 2021.

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