Following Tuesday Nights in 1980, Molly Prentiss presents another ambitious and brilliant novel. Old Flame stars a young woman seeking connection in busy New York City and picturesque Bologna, while wrestling with its many permutations.
Emily is performing a life. She's about 30 years old, has graduated from bartending to a "real job" writing advertising copy for an iconic department store. She has a boyfriend and "a shitty but workable basement apartment in Williamsburg that, because of my real-job salary, I did not have to share." She steals time at work to read poems and even do a little writing, but her lofty artistic goals aren't coming together in the gaps between witty headlines about bras and descriptions of leather satchels. She perpetually feels the absence of her mother, who died in childbirth, and the shortcomings of her rigid, distant adoptive mother.
As the novel opens, Emily's creative department is finalizing the Women's Book, a biannual catalogue, and Emily is moving from just-work-friends to real-friends status with Megan, a graphic designer. Megan sends Emily a drawing, Emily responds with a short story, and the two are off and running on a truly creative project: The Other Women's Book, Emily proposes, and Megan responds: YES. In quick succession, a troubled affair, a layoff and a wedding invitation both cement the women's friendship and upend their circumstances. More or less spontaneously they travel together to Italy, where Emily spent an important year abroad when she was about 20. And in Italy, an unplanned pregnancy and a devastating fight with Megan shatter Emily's tenuously structured life.
Old Flame considers the particular challenges of being a young artist in New York, balancing the kind of work that pays ("the magnet was capitalism, but I couldn't see that then") with the kind that inspires. It considers feminism and appearances, how people see themselves versus how others see them: in literal terms, Emily's boyfriend is a photographer, and she questions the pictures he takes of her and the ones he displays in his studio; figuratively, of course, the possibilities multiply. Prentiss is a master of detailed descriptions, character studies, highly specific lists and meaningful settings. New York is hectic, fast-changing and inspirational; Bologna is romantic and somehow simultaneously disorienting and comforting. Emily's deepest struggle is in navigating personal relationships: as a romantic partner, a daughter, a friend, a mother. By novel's end, she will have learned a little about what these roles mean.
With Old Flame, Prentiss offers a sensitive story, gorgeously detailed and painfully realistic, about the lives and ordeals of women and artists, and what it means to seek and shape connection in the modern world. Filled with both snark and wisdom, this novel is a gift of love and forgiveness. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: A young modern woman explores and redefines her roles as advertising copywriter, creative writer, friend, daughter, lover, partner and mother in this exquisitely detailed rendering.