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Astrid Sees All

A Novel

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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.

This reading group guide for Astrid Sees All includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Natalie Standiford. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Set in New York’s last bohemia, the star-studded, heart-pounding downtown club scene of the 1980s, Astrid Sees All unveils the world of its irresistible main character, Phoebe Hayes. Phoebe moves to the city with her best friend, Carmen, just after graduating from college, in search of adventure and a life she can call her own. But there is real pain—from Phoebe’s past, from a man who wrongs her, even from her relationship with Carmen—lurking beneath the surface. As much as Phoebe tries to bury it with sex, drugs, and a job telling fortunes at a glamourous nightclub, when Carmen suddenly disappears, Phoebe must confront what she’s been desperately living to avoid.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. We first meet Phoebe at college in Rhode Island, dreaming of a bigger, more adventurous life. How do you think her experiences in college shape that dream for her?

2. Phoebe’s relationship, such as it is, with Ivan is one of her first experiences after moving to the city. How do you think this relationship—and the way it ends—affects her? How does it change her perspective on what life might be like when she gets to make her own choices? What does she decide to do about what happens between them, and why do you think she makes that choice?

3. We’re initially introduced to Plutonium as “a new kind of nightclub, club as performance art” (p. 87). Art is everywhere in this novel, and the idea of life as performance art is an interesting concept in this context. Later, we’re told, “The art didn’t matter as much as being seen as part of the group” (p. 156). How much of Phoebe’s persona is a performance, meant to be seen by others, and how much of it is true?

4. Phoebe chooses the name Astrid for her fortune-telling alias. How does choosing an alias for her new job help Phoebe become a new person, someone who she’s always wanted to be? Do you think she sees herself as that person yet? At what point does she become the girl she wanted to be when she was younger? Is it like she imagined?

5. Phoebe is low on money or in debt throughout the novel, but this is especially so before she starts the job at Plutonium. She does have the safety net of her mother’s home in Baltimore, although she desperately doesn’t want to rely on that. Do you think having this safety net there, even if Phoebe doesn’t want to use it, affects the story? Do you think Phoebe’s experience and choices would change if she did not have that security?

6. Portrayals of drug use and abuse show up several times over the course of the novel. How does the portrayal of drugs for recreational use—like everyone using at clubs, and the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” lifestyle—contrast with the darker realities of substance abuse at the beginning of the crack epidemic? How do these issues show up in the novel?

7. We’re told that Carmen “loved who she loved. Once she loved you, you couldn’t shake her. But you couldn’t earn your way into her heart, either. So if she loved you, it made you a kind of royalty” (p. 119). In what ways does Carmen make Phoebe feel special? Why do you think Phoebe continues to remain close with her after she discovers, time after time, that Carmen lies to her or hides things from her? Do you think Phoebe wants the relationship with her to be more than simply platonic?

8. Phoebe’s sightings of the posters with missing girls appear several times throughout the novel before we realize why or what is happening. How does having this backdrop of potential loss and fear—even fear for Phoebe’s own safety—affect our experience reading the story?

9. Phoebe and Carmen’s relationship throughout the novel is tumultuous. At times, they’re as close as two friends can be, but at others, Carmen’s lies are revealed and Phoebe feels like she doesn’t know her at all. Why do you think this portrayal of turbulent friendships is so fascinating? What other works of fiction portray addictive but often damaging relationships between two close friends?

10. At Plutonium, Phoebe brushes up against all kinds of famous people, like Andy Warhol, Sting, Grace Jones, Christopher Walken, and many more. How does including these real people help ground the story and show the scope of Phoebe’s world? How are celebrities viewed in the New York bohemia of the time? Are they revered or treated as ordinary people—or somewhere in between?

11. Phoebe feels like she has so much agency throughout the story; she makes her life look the way she wants it to. But at some point, she admits, “I thought about Ivan. . . . When I’d wanted the story to end, I’d declared it over, but by then it had taken on a life of its own and was out of my control” (p. 142). How much of what happens to Phoebe is out of her control? Does this become increasingly so as the story goes on, or was it always that way?

12. Near the end of the book, Jem asks Phoebe about how she tells people’s futures when they’re hiding their true selves. In what ways does Phoebe become more perceptive when it comes to reading others throughout her journey? How does this skill serve her amid everything that happens at the end of the novel?

13. Over the course of the novel, we slowly realize that Phoebe’s father’s death took a much greater toll on her than we’d previously realized. What signs were there, in retrospect, that suggest that Phoebe’s grief was affecting her thoughts and actions?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. This story is so cinematic that you can almost hear the music and see the clothes and the clubs. If this were a movie or TV show, what would be your dream casting for the characters?

2. Watch classic films set in the 1980s like Desperately Seeking Susan, Bright Lights, Big City, and The Last Days of Disco and discuss them with your book club. How do they intersect with the world shown through Astrid Sees All? What does Astrid Sees All reveal about that time and place that other books and media have not?

3. You can find the fully designed book club kit at https://www.nataliestandiford.com/bookclubs_.htm. In it, you can find lists of songs, movies, and places mentioned in the book and an eighties playlist created by the author to accompany the read.

A Conversation with Natalie Standiford

Q: New York City in the 1980s is such a vibrant backdrop for the story. What made you decide on that particular time and place for the novel? Do you have a personal connection to it?

A: I graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York on the last day of August that year. It was such a momentous occasion for me that I still mark the date, privately, every August 31. So I can’t help but associate that time and place with coming of age.

I lived on the Upper West Side (where my first job was as a clerk at the late, legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Broadway and 81st Street) for a year before moving to the East Village. New York City has always been a magnet for adventurous young people, but the downtown Manhattan of the eighties was remarkable for the way it combined a burgeoning arts scene with danger, grit, and a kind of magic. In describing the photographer Nan Goldin’s great work from that period (most notably The Ballad of Sexual Dependency), the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that her “photographs of determinedly broken youth . . . preserve the desperate, at times literally deathly, ardors of a generation that stayed up late to fit into each day its maximum quotient of mistakes.” I remember that feeling of craving excitement no matter the consequences, of needing to live on the edge. The East Village of the eighties drew outsiders of all kinds who weren’t afraid of taking risks, and who wanted to live big lives on their own terms . . . which makes a great setting for a novel.

Q: Even though the book is set only a few decades ago, did you do research when writing to add more details to the story? Did you research any of the art exhibitions, clubs, etc. of the time? Did you find anything surprising when you did? How did you choose what details to include?

A: I did do some research. In 2017 the Museum of Modern Art had a show called “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983,” which thrilled me because that was slightly before my time and I’d always felt I’d missed something big. Club 57 was an influential performance venue/gallery/party space in the basement of a Polish church on St. Marks Place, and the museum tried to re-create that basement vibe. The same year, the Whitney Museum exhibited paintings from the eighties, focused on downtown New York, which brought back memories of the crowded East Village gallery openings I tried to shove my way into on Thursday nights.

I read books like St. Marks Is Dead, a history of St. Marks Place by Ada Calhoun; looked at photos by Ken Schles (Invisible City) and Nan Goldin (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency); and read all the accounts of nightlife I could find. I reread some of the books I’d loved in my twenties, like Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and Elbowing the Seducer by T. Gertler, which made a big splash in 1984 but seems to be undeservedly forgotten now. I revisited some of my favorite movies from or about the eighties—Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens, Stranger Than Paradise, Downtown 81, Basquiat, The Last Days of Disco, Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas, and Éric Rohmer’s Summer, to name a few—which helped me remember the look, the sound, and the emotional tenor of the period.

I also reread my journals from those years, which was painful and embarrassing but did yield some juicy details that I probably would have blocked out otherwise. Nothing really surprised me, except perhaps how run-down and dirty the city was in those days. There was a real sense of decay, which, of course, is part of “decadence.”

I included only a fraction of all this research in the book, though I suspect that immersing myself in these details enriched the atmosphere of the novel. I used anything that helped illustrate Phoebe’s state of mind—what she would notice, what would matter to her or seem new or strange to her—or that contributed to the story.

Q: Why did you choose to start the book with one of Phoebe’s experiences with Ivan, before going back to her college days? What about that relationship with him sets the stage for what’s to come?

A: To me the Ivan episode illustrates how Phoebe’s hunger for experience clouds her judgment. She grew up fairly sheltered, and once she gets to college she realizes how naïve she is compared to many of her peers. She’s eager to see the world—the real world, the seedy truth her parents tried to protect her from—and she’s willing to sacrifice a lot for that knowledge. I thought of her as a Persephone figure, except that instead of being dragged into the underworld by Hades, she hunts for the entrance herself and forces her way in. She feels she needs to do this, that it’s part of becoming a full person. The moment she meets Ivan is the moment she finds the door to the underworld.

Then, too, she sees her life as a movie, and a good movie must have drama. If there’s no drama in her life, she’s willing to create it; and once the story is set in motion, she has to see it through to the end, even if it means getting hurt. (She’s not afraid of taking risks, but I don’t think she really understands what the consequences might be.) So I opened the novel at the place where, in Phoebe’s mind, the movie of her life begins: the relationship that sets her on a downward spiral.

Q: Why did you choose ticket stubs to be the way Phoebe told fortunes as opposed to something more traditional, like tarot cards or palm reading?

A: Originally, Phoebe was a palm reader, but I found it hard to describe palm reading in an interesting way. Head line, heart line, life line . . . there was only so much she could say. One night I was listening to a podcast interview with a tarot card reader and she mentioned that you can use anything you like in place of tarot cards—anything that has meaning for you, even movie ticket stubs. A bell went off in my head. Just mentioning movie titles, plots, and actors evoked so much about Phoebe’s state of mind and the flavor of the period, and it was more fun than describing the lines on someone’s hand. And the idea of collecting movie ticket stubs fit with Phoebe’s sense that her life is a movie, that movies are the standard against which she measures reality.

Q: Were any of the events in the book inspired by things that happened to you or to someone else in real life?

A: The early drafts were full of incidents I remembered from my own life, but they fell away as I revised until the story’s connection to my real life grew so blurry as to be unrecognizable. Almost everything in the finished book is made up. (When I’m writing, I know a story is finally on the right track when it starts to pull away from the autobiographical and the “true” and take on a life of its own.)

But there is one real-life incident that I couldn’t resist adapting for the novel. My brother John was visiting me here in New York. One day he came home from rambling around the East Village and told me that he’d been stopped on his way into a bodega by a guy with a rooster on his shoulder. I’d seen that guy around; everyone in the neighborhood knew who he was. The guy asked John to buy him some potatoes; they wouldn’t let him into the bodega with the rooster, he said. John thought, What harm could a few potatoes do? and bought them for him. A little while later the guy with the rooster, Daniel Rakowitz, was arrested for killing his girlfriend, chopping up her body, and boiling it into a soup that he served to the homeless people camped out in Tomkins Square Park. When I heard that I got chills. What if John had unwittingly provided the potatoes for the soup? That’s how bizarre the neighborhood was then, and how interconnected everyone was, whether we wanted to be or not.

Q: There are many songs mentioned during the course of the book. Are any of them personal favorites of yours?

A: So many of them! I was obsessed with the Jam, Talking Heads, New Order, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Pogues, and still love them. I made a playlist while writing the book and listened to it over and over, striving to capture the energy of the music. One of the inspirations for the novel was a simple yet vivid memory. I was living on Avenue A, getting ready for friends to come over for a party. I put New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies on the turntable and danced around the apartment to “Your Silent Face” for the sheer pleasure of it. Who knows why that scene felt so evocative to me thirty years later, but it haunted me while I wrote, and kept me connected to that feeling of being twenty-two on a Friday night in New York.

Q: Do you have any favorite books set in a similar time or place that inspired you as you were writing?

A: Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is like time traveling for me. I used to look for her stories in The New Yorker every week and got so excited when they published a new one. I felt like she was writing about me—her recurring character Eleanor was as insecure as I was, even though her life was a lot more glamorous than mine. Other inspirations: Ann Beattie’s stories in Where You’ll Find Me, Laurie Colwin’s in The Lone Pilgrim, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and all the tales of youthful love and folly set at other times, in other places, like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, the tales of Colette, Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, and No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. For starters.

As for poetry: Two poets I love, Alice Notley and Frank O’Hara, were East Villagers. Notley lived on St. Marks Place in the seventies and eighties and published Margaret & Dusty in 1985, which includes one of my favorites, “All My Life.” A few decades earlier, O’Hara wrote poems like “Avenue A” and “Early on Sunday” (“how sad the lower East Side is on Sunday morning in May . . .”) while living on East Ninth Street, right around the corner from the apartment Phoebe and Carmen share on Avenue A.

Q: So much of the story is full of the whirlwind adventure Phoebe has in the downtown club scene, but it becomes increasingly clear that she’s hiding from her pain. There is a lot of pain in this novel—grief, overdoses, murders, betrayal, etc. Why was it important to you to portray that, in contrast to the fast-paced nightlife Phoebe experiences?

A: There is a kind of frantic fun that is driven by an unwillingness to face pain, and that’s what Phoebe finds on the Lower East Side. But I couldn’t truthfully dramatize the appeal of chasing those thrills without also depicting the cost. It’s tempting to romanticize the past, but there was real danger in New York at that time. Rents were low for a reason: a lot of people considered the city an undesirable place to live—dirty, crime-ridden, and chaotic. In exchange for excitement, creativity, and glamour, you had to put up with getting mugged, or being awakened in the middle of the night by strangers hoping you’d buzz them into your building so they could shoot up or break into an apartment, or finding blood and needles on your doorstep in the morning, or the sad sight of junkies dreaming on the sidewalk with no idea where they were. Phoebe’s experience wouldn’t have carried any emotional weight if I’d left all that out.

Q: Carmen is such an interesting character—at times pulling Phoebe in and at others pushing her away. What made you decide on this dynamic for their friendship?

A: I’ve been in relationships—both platonic and romantic—that had this baffling push-pull dynamic, and I’ve always been interested in how they work and why they’re so common. I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand it. What makes a friend pull away, and what makes her come back? What gives one friend power over another? Carmen instinctively knows how to keep people interested in her, which is a skill Phoebe wants, but she learns it by being Carmen’s practice dummy. Eventually, Phoebe has to ask herself what she’s doing in this friendship and begins to realize that she’s been playing games too; she wasn’t the faithful friend she appeared to be. She loves Carmen, but she also wants things from her. This kind of lopsided friendship is more complex than it looks on the surface; the one who seems to be taken advantage of is usually in it for reasons of her own.

Q: This story is told as a first-person narrative from Phoebe’s point of view. What made you choose this perspective rather than, say, a third-person narrative that showed multiple perspectives? What do you think we gain with this access into Phoebe’s mind, and why is that important for the story you tell?

A: Early drafts of the novel were written in the third person, with three protagonists; one was Phoebe, and the others were two of her roommates. The roommate stories were not as compelling as Phoebe’s, and in the end she took over the book. I decided to have her narrate it because the story is about how she deludes herself, how her thinking changes over the course of a year, how the events of the story change her, and I thought the reader could see that most clearly if they were inside Phoebe’s mind. I wanted readers to understand why she’d make decisions that look so foolish from the outside (though they make sense to her at the time), and why she’d put herself in the way of so much pain. I wouldn’t call Phoebe an unreliable narrator exactly, but she’s still young when she tells her story; the lessons of it are just beginning to dawn on her. As she reviews what happened, she begins to see the events in a new light, and I hope that witnessing her thoughts as she goes through this process adds a layer to the drama.

Q: This is your first adult novel—congratulations! In what ways did writing this book differ in your process from writing your past novels?

A: In many ways writing is writing. I like to set my books in “Natalie World,” which is the world as I see it, filtered through my sensibility. No matter who I’m writing for, my eyes and ears and heart are inevitably drawn to certain images, themes, and details—the odd, the eccentric, maybe a hint of the mysterious or supernatural, the female experience, things that are kind of sad and kind of funny (like a killer with a pet rooster, or a woman’s tongue swelling up in reaction to anxiety, or a postcard photo of people playing Ping-Pong at a psychiatric hospital). I think you could draw a line from How to Say Goodbye in Robot—a YA novel I published in 2009—to Astrid Sees All and find a lot of similarities: a narrator on the edge of a closed world, looking in and feeling drawn to the other outsiders she meets. I could imagine Phoebe going to high school with Bea from Robot.

On the other hand, I did enjoy writing about certain subjects (sex, drugs, the pre-internet world, and twentieth-century culture) without worrying that my readers would not have had enough experience to understand what I was talking about. That was very freeing.

Q: Do you have a next project in mind? If so, can you share anything about it?

A: I’m working on a novel about two sisters, set in Baltimore and New York in the late 1990s. It’s too early to say much more than that—I’m still writing the first draft and a lot can change in revision!
Photograph by Nikola Tamindzic

Natalie Standiford was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and studied Russian language and literature at Brown University and in the former Soviet Union. She has written many books for children and teens, including How to Say Goodbye in Robot; The Secret Tree; and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives with her husband in New York City, where she occasionally plays bass in rock bands with other restless writers. Find out more at NatalieStandiford.com
 

“I loved this dark and smart thriller about the East Village in the 1980’s, starring a bright but lost young woman who is determined to chase danger and glamour and madness right up to the edge of reason. With shades of both Gatsby and Warhol, Standiford has created a vivid portrait of a seedy, edgy, artsy, and seething New York City that will never exist again. I flew through these pages.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and City of Girls

"A new wave, coming-of-age story, Astrid Sees All is a blast from the past, taking the reader back to the ratty Bohemia of the Lower East Side of the early ‘80s, complete with squatters, cold-water sublets, white punks on dope in the trashed bathrooms of trendy clubs, and even a cameo by the king of downtown, Lou Reed.  Sharp-eyed and light on her feet, Natalie Standiford is the perfect tour guide for one young woman’s leap from the ivied halls of college into another, even more unreal world."

– Stewart O'Nan, author of The Speed Queen

"Astrid Sees All is so fun to read you might miss the grief that fuels this novel. Phoebe, the book's narrator, moves through the surreal, kaleidoscopic world  of 1980's club life as well as the dilapidated and electric East Village.  Her struggle for self definition is remarkably honest; Phoebe is a feminist heroine as complicated as she is compelling."

– Darcey Steinke, author of Flash Count Diary and Suicide Blonde

Astrid Sees All is an unforgettable story: a Lower East Side night-world full of damaged young dreamers, all kids who want to be stars, but end up just breaking each other’s hearts along with their own. Only Natalie Standiford could bring these girls to life with so much tender wit, street-wise compassion, and brilliant soul. She givesthis novel the beautifully fragile  strut of a Lou Reed guitar ballad."

– Rob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mix Tape

"Astrid Sees All zooms us back to the 1980s in the most delightful and nostalgic way: New York in all its craziness and magnetism is alive again through the clear-eyed observations and adventures of our witty and generous narrator."

– Martha McPhee, author of An Elegant Woman

"Astrid Sees All has the startling vibrancy of a Nan Goldin photograph and the heartbreak and wit of a film by Preston Sturges, which is to say Natalie Standiford's vision is an original one. I loved Astrid so much that I didn't want this funny, sad novel to ever end. Standiford has the storytelling charm!"

– Rene Steinke, author of Holy Skirts and Friendswood

The author's glee in evoking the zeitgeist of the 1980s is infectious....Smart details, lively digressions, and spot-on period snapshots.

– Kirkus Reviews

"Guiding readers on a descent into clubland...with the gusto of a certain Musto."

– The Millions

"Standiford captures a beating, smoky world....There is page-turning plot aplenty here, dealing with the pains of grief, addiction, and simply growing up, all made endurable by love and friendship."

– Booklist