“An intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale…As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A vital, sensuous, edgy, and suspenseful tale of longing, rage, fear, compulsion, and love.” —Booklist (starred review)
A transcendent debut novel that follows a critic, an artist, and a desirous, determined young woman as they find their way—and ultimately collide—amid the ever-evolving New York City art scene of the 1980s.
Welcome to SoHo at the onset of the eighties: a gritty, not-yet-gentrified playground for artists and writers looking to make it in the big city. Among them: James Bennett, a synesthetic art critic for the New York Times whose unlikely condition enables him to describe art in profound, magical ways, and Raul Engales, an exiled Argentinian painter running from his past and the Dirty War that has enveloped his country. As the two men ascend in the downtown arts scene, dual tragedies strike, and each is faced with a loss that acutely affects his relationship to life and to art. It is not until they are inadvertently brought together by Lucy Olliason—a small town beauty and Raul’s muse—and a young orphan boy sent mysteriously from Buenos Aires, that James and Raul are able to rediscover some semblance of what they’ve lost.
As inventive as Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad and as sweeping as Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, Tuesday Nights in 1980 boldly renders a complex moment when the meaning and nature of art is being all but upended, and New York City as a whole is reinventing itself. In risk-taking prose that is as powerful as it is playful, Molly Prentiss deftly explores the need for beauty, community, creation, and love in an ever-changing urban landscape.
This reading group guide for Tuesday Nights in 1980 includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Molly Prentiss. 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.
As a new decade looms over lower Manhattan, James Bennett is at the top of his game. His wife, Marge, is pregnant, and for once his synesthesia—a neurological phenomenon that crosses sensory pathways—is working in his favor. As an art critic for the New York Times, James is uniquely able to wrench the essential feeling from works of art he lays eyes on, thus launching many a starving artist’s career and making a name for himself that is synonymous with good taste.
But on the first Tuesday of 1980, the New Year rings in tragedy, and James realizes that the sensations he depends on have disappeared. Hungering for new inspiration, he sets his sights on Raul Engales, an exiled Argentinian oil painter who has come to New York both to seek fame and flee turmoil in his country. But when Raul’s own tragic fate befalls him, the two men face a world void of color or inspiration. Their meeting depends on Lucy—a young bartender desperate to slink out of her Idaho skin—who acts as both their glue and the wedge that drives them apart.
Over the course of one year, as the art world faces an unprecedented swell of commercialization, these three lives collide and remake each other. James, Raul, and Lucy encounter the depths of fame, humanity, and loss, and are forced to redefine their relationship to art, beauty, and life. A bold, colorful, and rhythmic literary debut, Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a riveting exposé of a moment that changed everything for what it means to be an artist in modern New York City.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the 1980 “portrait of Manhattan” offered here. How does New York City act as its own of character throughout the novel? How does it change and grow? How would you describe a portrait of your own home, in 2015?
2. James’s first journalism teacher claims that there is “influence in oddity.” How do we find ways to absorb difference into our identity? Discuss James’s complex relationship to his synesthesia.
3. Like James, we all have a “Running List of Worries.” What do think would be on Lucy’s or Raul’s list? Marge’s or Arlene’s? Why do you think it is so much easier to internalize our regrets over our accomplishments?
4. There is a perverse comfort afforded to those who share tragedy, like Franca’s resistance group or John Lennon’s mourners, that is inaccessible to those who suffer in solitude, like Raul. Where and how do you think Raul finally finds a similar kind of recognition?
5. Discuss James’s relationship to art commercialization as it swarms up around him. Why does his black-and-white stance on separating art from currency fade to gray?
6. For these characters, there is often a wide gap between perception and reality. Do you think Manhattan culture perpetuates this gap? Why or why not?
7. When Raul paints Franca, she asks him not to paint the “bad parts,” but Raul becomes fixated on the flaws that surround him. Discuss how these fragments can make up a beautiful whole, or even act as a whole themselves. How does this resonate throughout the novel?
8. Discuss the role of fate and timing in the story, especially as it relates to Winona’s New Year’s Eve party. How much agency do these characters really have?
9. Raul’s father plays him a scratched recording of “Little Child” by the Beatles before professing that “the scratches are what make a life.” Do you agree? Why do you think the author chose “Little Child” for this moment?
10. When she moves to New York, Lucy wants a life of momentum, change, and propulsion. Do you think she feels the same at the end? Do you agree with Raul that she doesn’t yet know how to “need herself”? What does that mean?
11. After breaking up with Lucy, Raul realizes that “memories of sweet times now felt sour.” In the novel, how does memory shift to reflect shame and regret, and how does that extend to Raul and Franca’s siblinghood? James and Marge’s marriage?
12. James insists that every work of art must be a journey, filled with associative power, while Raul wonders if it is possible to begin with a complete idea already in hand. What do you think, and why?
13. Discuss the symbolism of James’s white suit. What does the black stain mean?
14. Lucy often compartmentalizes herself, neatly splitting her identity between her girlhood in Idaho and her womanhood in the city. Discuss the inherent disconnect here. In the end, how do these character learn to reconcile each part of themselves?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. James often finds hidden commonalities between his art heroes. Do your favorite writers, artists, or musicians share a similar artistic kinship? Bring an excerpt, photo, or clip of your favorite works to share with the group.
2. Discuss what you think your town or city was like in 1980. Do you think it has changed for worse or for better?
3. Find the nearest art gallery and learn more about local artists in your community. You could even walk in James’s shoes and hone your critical eye.
4. Take a fun beginner’s art class together and offer each other some constructive criticism, taking care not to be as harsh as Arlene.
A Conversation with Molly Prentiss
This is your first novel, but you are a prolific short-story writer. How long have you had this book in your head? Did it start out as a shorter piece, and if so, what prompted you to take it further?
I’ve been working on this book for close to seven years; it was my thesis project in graduate school in 2010. It was meant, originally, to be a collection of short stories—I didn’t think I wanted to write a novel, so I was submitting these stories in my novel workshop, trying to pass them off as chapters. There was a story about a man who lost his hand (who eventually became Raul), another about a young girl who moves to New York City and and finds love (Lucy), another about a man who went blind (who morphed into James). But during the course of the class, the stories started to butt up against each other in interesting ways, and I thought, “Maybe my fake novel could actually be real!” So I began, painstakingly, to experiment with weaving them together. It was a slippery process that took many years. Hundreds of pages—and entire narrative arcs—landed on the cutting-room floor. But the whole process was sort of a crash course in plotting, narrative progression, and character development—aka how to write a book.
Tell us a little about your research process. As a native New Yorker, which sites and texts did you most rely on to evoke such a vivid picture of the downtown art scene in 1980?
Even though so much has changed since 1980, I think there are essential things about New York that never change: the smoke from the subway grates, the pretzels, the crazy clashes of the neighborhoods. To capture these feelings of the city, I spent a lot of time walking around with my notebook. I would write down the random, often hilarious bits of dialogue I’d catch as I walked by, and the sounds and smells and street names. I picked out an existing apartment for each of my characters so I could imagine exactly where they were living. For the art references, I went to the Strand bookstore and bought every book about ’80s art I could find. I mined my boyfriend, who is an artist and art lover, for descriptions of his favorite projects from the time (he was the one who told me about Tehching Hsieh, who did year-long conceptual art works). Though the timing wasn’t exactly right, Patti Smith’s Just Kids was wonderful for its romantic, singular vision of downtown New York. Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers was a huge inspiration. I also dove into Keith Haring’s journals, old issues of Art Forum, and, of course, the far reaches of Google.
There are innumerable references to famous artists throughout the novel. Do you share in James’s artistic tastes? Who would you most like to see in your own personal collection?
I definitely share James’s taste in art. It was so fun to write from his perspective about pieces and artists I found compelling or beautiful or interesting. I thought a lot about my dad, who is a wonderful painter, when I was deciding on which paintings James might like. My dad loves Lucien Freud and David Hockney, as does James, as do I. I would love nothing more than to own one of David Hockney’s paintings or drawings. Even better: one of his notebooks.
The novel takes place almost entirely in New York City, yet it opens with Franca in Buenos Aires. Why did you choose to start there?
Initially, Franca was a much bigger part of the book, and much more of it was set in Buenos Aires. I wanted to juxtapose what was happening in Argentina in those years—the Dirty War, in which over 30,000 innocent people were kidnapped and killed—with what was going on in New York, which was so wildly different. Where the military government in Argentina was cracking down on anything remotely radical (art and artists being one of those things), New Yorkers were feeding off of expression and invention. The contrast scared and intrigued me. But as I tightened the narrative, I had to make some very tough decisions, and anchoring the book in New York was one of them. Raul became the portal into Franca’s world and the Buenos Aires of his youth; that story became more of a foundation than a pillar. But I chose to keep Franca at the front of this book because in my opinion her story is essential to Raul’s fate: her son, Julian, is the thing that, in the end, will save Raul. Franca and Julian act as bookends for Raul’s story.
The novel closes with Franca and Julian’s “The Brother” story. Discuss the role of storytelling throughout the book, especially as it applies to self-narration.
I am very interested in the subtle ways an omniscient narrator can control a story, and I explored that a lot in this book. I wanted to give the sense that the characters’ fates were in some way predetermined, that something outside of them was driving the bus. In some ways, I think this gives the book the quality of a fable or a legend, even though the content is not meant to be moral or explanatory. When Julian tells his uncle the brother story at the end, he reminds Raul of his importance in their family’s story. The story is an offering, a gift. I am fascinated by the way stories can change and move and save people, whether that story comes in the form of a painting or a poem or a prayer.
Which character were you the saddest to leave? Which would you prefer never to see again?
I miss Raul and Arlene and their friendship; there was a tenderness between them that I really liked. I loved being with Raul pre-accident, when he was so open and curious and wild. I struggled so much with writing James’s character (I re-wrote his sections countless times to get him right) that he actually began to annoy me; I think I could do without him for a while.
When did you first discover synesthesia and what did you learn about it in your research? At what point did you decide to make James a synesthete?
I met a woman in college who told me I was the color peach. I chalked it up to a new-age aura reading or something, until I later found out she had synesthesia. I was immediately intrigued. I’ve often had my own very specific associations with colors, words, etc., and though I don’t have synesthesia, I connected with the idea of it and wanted to explore it. I read a fascinating book called Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman, which is where I discovered that many famous artists and writers have been synesthetes, which makes perfect sense (pun intended). As one might suspect after reading my book, I am very interested in physical phenomena, specifically physical loss. In one draft I wrote, James had gone blind; I was obsessed with attempting to understand and describe that experience. But in the end, it was too close to Raul’s tragedy, and I wanted to take it to a more nuanced place. When I landed on synesthesia, I knew I had endless fodder for James’s character, and I loved the possibility for playful language, associative thinking, and metaphor while writing about his condition.
Do you have any new books in the works?
Yes! I am working on a new novel about six sisters who grow up on a commune in Northern California.
Molly Prentiss was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California. She was a Writer in Residence at Workspace at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Vermont Studio Center and was chosen as an Emerging Writer Fellow by the Aspen Writers Foundation. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the California College of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.
"It isn't easy to write a novel about art, and even harder to write a novel about art this good, with this much energy and verve and sense of adventure -- and Molly Prentiss has done it. 'Tuesday Nights in 1980' is much more than an accomplished first novel; it is a beautifully written story of creation and transformation, set against a backdrop of urban decay and political violence. I loved this book."
– Daniel Alarcón, author of At Night We Walk in Circles & Lost City Radio
"For those of us who like our novels soulful and brainy, ambitious and deeply felt, Molly Prentiss has given us a first work of fiction to marvel at and then savor. This is a serious young writer in full command of her craft."
– Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me
"Whether her canvas is as broad as the New York City art world in the good old days of glitz and excess, or as small as the quiet, deeply moving connection between brother and sister, Molly Prentiss seems able to render any expression of humanity expertly onto the page. TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980 has worlds in it, all wildly appealing, and Molly Prentiss has chops to spare. I can't imagine the soul who won't love this book."
– Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas
"An agile, imaginative, knowledgeable, and seductive writer, Prentiss combines exquisite sensitivity with unabashed melodrama to create an operatic tale of ambition and delusion, success and loss, mystery and crassness. Prentiss’ insights into this brash art world are sharply particularized and shrewd, but she also tenderly illuminates universal sorrows, “beautiful horrors,” and lush moments of bliss. In all, a vital, sensuous, edgy, and suspenseful tale of longing, rage, fear, compulsion, and love.
– Booklist (Starred Review)
"First-time novelist Prentiss vividly conjures a colorful love triangle set in the gritty, art-soaked world of downtown New York in 1980. Impressive, too, is her ability to create an atmosphere that crackles with possibility as well as foreboding...a bold and auspicious debut."
– Publishers Weekly
“An intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale… As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.”
– Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a sweepingly large and profound story about art, love and actualization, cleanly and beautifully composed... A poetic novel of ambitiously profound considerations, a large-scale drama in a series of small, perfectly rendered moments."
– Shelf Awareness
"We are luckily introduced to three individuals who bravely take the stage, ready to conquer SoHo by storm. Their trek amongst the bright lights is captivating, and readers will be hanging on the edge of their seats."
– RT Book Reviews
An April 2016 LibraryReads Pick
“Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a discerning, passionate and humane work.”
"It's 1980 in SoHo, and in this thrilling, vibrant debut, a synesthetic art critic could make or break [an artist named] Raul. And so could a girl named Lucy. Oh, and his own recklessness, too."
– Marie Claire magazine
“The gritty New York art scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s pulsed with creative energy, and so does this engaging novel… It portrays an intoxicating world and its raw, ungentrified backdrop—both about to be transformed by greed.”
– People Magazine
“Innovative to the max, this debut novel from Molly Prentiss is a book that I've been raving about to everyone I know…Prentiss will leave you breathless as she plays with form and description in astounding new ways.”
"[Prentiss'] writing is as vivid and sensitive as the pensées of her synesthetic art-critic protagonist...[her] descriptions of the eighties art world ring true on both the texture of the work and its go-go capitalist corruption."
“In one sentence, Ms. Prentiss captures a sense of intoxication and possibility that six seasons of voice-overs from Sarah Jessica Parker never could…. Ms. Prentiss concludes her novel on a note that’s both ethereal and brutally realistic. She cauterizes wounds, but they’re still visible and bare. But for her characters — for this promising author —it’s enough.”
– The New York Times
“[Prentiss’s] sensual linguistic flourishes exquisitely evoke the passions we can feel for people and places we’ve known or are discovering…again and again, the temptation is to underline passages…there are riveting plots and subplots… still the book’s magnificence remains in its shadings, descriptive and emotional… toward the end you’ll find yourself turning the pages slowly, sorry to realize you’re almost finished.”
– O, The Oprah Magazine
“Prentiss’s first novel is about art: making it, loving it and letting it go. And the book itself is a work of artistry…what stands out is a straightforward and familiar story… but the writing—authentic and frenetic—makes the material feel fresh. I’ve been there, done that, but I held my breath the whole way.”
– The New York Times Book Review
"Capturing the zeitgeist of a pivotal time and place, this novel is brash and ambitious, with a dash of magical realism thrown in: think Andy Warhol’s legendary parties when they were still underground. Prentiss has created a remarkable debut."