I’m always looking out for upcoming books, and one book that recently caught my eye was Astrid Sees All, Natalie Standiford‘s first novel for adults. A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to win an advanced reader’s edition of it in a Goodreads giveaway. It arrived not long after that, and so I dove in right away, reading it all in one weekend.
Astrid Sees All takes us to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1980s. Phoebe has recently graduated from college, and though she only has a badly paid part-time job, she’s trying to make it in New York City. But a series of bad events — including the death of her father — send Phoebe into a downward spiral.
Escaping from her personal problems, Phoebe and her college friend Carmen get an apartment together in a shady area of the city. Phoebe ends up becoming a fortune teller — uniquely using movie ticket stubs rather than a crystal ball or Tarot cards — at an exclusive late-night club. She interacts with artists and celebrities, and gets into the habit of staying up all night and doing drugs. But she’s not just there for fun: She’s also on a mission to seek revenge on the older lover who jilted her.
Meanwhile, other dangers and problems brew around her: Young women in her neighborhood are going missing, some friends are dying of drug overdoses, and Phoebe has a big fight with Carmen. These various issues tighten together until the a big end.
I’ll be up-front with you: Despite all that’s going for it, I didn’t really enjoy this book. Part of that is probably due to false expectations. The marketing copy I saw led me to believe Astrid Sees All would be a fun, glittering sort of novel, and it was anything but. Instead, I saw a young woman going through a personal breakdown, falling into dangerous drug use, seeing close friends overdose and die, and seeing other friendships and family relationships fall apart. If anything, I found this book to be rather depressing.
On the one hand, I can understand how directionless Phoebe is. It can be so hard when you’re first out of college, and you’re still not sure where your life will take you. You don’t know what job you want, and the job search isn’t going well; behaving like an adult still doesn’t come naturally. In some ways, I related to Phoebe’s early directionless feeling. I struggled for years in getting solid footing in my career, and I’m still not in the industry I’d aimed for.
But when Phoebe starts doing things, sometimes dangerous things, just to see what happens, it starts to feel more upsetting than fun or relatable. She’s so apathetic that she’d almost be okay with being mugged or raped or murdered; at least something interesting would have happened. That’s not a quirky or edgy view of directionless youth… that’s someone who needs help. I felt sad and worried for her, yet also annoyed at her.
A driving force in the novel is Phoebe’s obsession with her friend Carmen, something I never really understood. It often seemed that Phoebe was actually kind of in love with Carmen, even if she didn’t realize it, but it wasn’t a healthy form of love. Phoebe lets herself do stupid and dangerous things just because Carmen does them. Caving in to peer pressure and simply wanting to fit in are common, especially among younger people, but I just couldn’t relate in this regard.
Beyond troubles of life paths and keeping up with your “more interesting” friends, Astrid Sees All also goes into undeniably heavy territory in its representation of drug abuse. This isn’t just Phoebe doing multiple lines of cocaine each night at the club — something some may think of as “fun,” though truth be told, I just found it highly concerning. Alas, no, it gets worse: We see Carmen and her boyfriend both become addicted to heroin. One person overdoses and dies, and while it’s not surprising, it is still, naturally, pretty upsetting.
Part of why I wanted to read this book was because Phoebe’s dad dies early on, and it plays a big role in how she acts afterward. I, too, lost my dad around the time I finished college, and as painful as it is, I feel drawn to stories of other young women facing the aftermath of a father’s death. It’s one thing I did like about Astrid Sees All, though Phoebe’s response was far more destructive than I would have hoped. Unfortunate, too, is how she cuts off ties with her living family members, isolating herself in her self-made prison of poverty and partying. Those elements were understandable and heart-wrenching, even if the path it led Phoebe down was not one I could get behind.
Something else I couldn’t really get behind was Phoebe’s revenge scheme against her ex. It always felt rather weak and unnecessary, and it didn’t add much to the plot. It wasn’t even something I’d categorize as revenge. More like a way to process a certain trauma and wipe the slate clean. What Phoebe needed was closure, and calling that revenge was silly and dramatic.
This is one of several things that leads me to conclude that Phoebe was kind of just too dumb. She had bad people in her life and made incomprehensible decisions. She was immature and a danger to herself. I didn’t like her or any of the other characters. Usually I’m perfectly fine with reading unlikeable characters, but for whatever reason, in Astrid Sees All it just furthered my disconnect. I could not get invested in any of the characters or events. I just wanted the book to end.
Speaking of the ending, though, it got unexpectedly (though not randomly) exciting in some of the last chapters. I won’t spoil it here, but the book briefly felt like a thriller and actually (ironically) lifted the mood for me. But even that couldn’t save the book. In the end, I was just glad I’d finished the novel.
Astrid Sees All isn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t for me and it’s not one I’d recommend to others. For those who do still want to give it a chance, my main word of caution would be to disregard any marketing that calls it fun, because it’s not. Go into it prepared for some difficult themes and unlikeable characters at a low point in their young lives. Be ready to dive into mental health issues, grief following a loved one’s death, and the consequences of drug abuse, presented in a year-long, slice-of-life sort of way. This novel is short but heavy, so if that’s your thing, give it a shot. Perhaps you’ll like it more than I did.
Astrid Sees All comes out on April 6th.
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