In 1980s New York, a naïve young intellectual is entranced, employed, exasperated, and expelled by members of a wealthy family.
Firmani’s debut tells the story of Francesca “Chess” Varani from her first year at Barnard until “the day when youth finally died” two decades later, when she learns what became of a wealthy college friend named Kendra Marr-Löwenstein, whose writer mother she worked for as a personal assistant, whose musician brother she fell in love with, whose whole exotic, damaged family bewitched her then betrayed her utterly. Like last year’s Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, it is the coming-of-age of a young woman under the influence of unwholesome Manhattan sophisticates; like the previous year’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, it is a nostalgic paean to the city’s recent past, studded with continual highbrow references. One character’s personality is summed up by the fact that she reads Jürgen Habermas in the original German, another leaves a conversation about Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism to puke in an umbrella stand, and everything Chess sets eyes on recalls one artist or another. Despite her generous hand with her encyclopedic knowledge of everything, Chess is an engaging character, often very funny and cool. From working-class Italian origins in a burg she calls Barfonia, she details her enchantment by the Marr-Löwensteins from the night she meets Kendra standing in the street at 4 a.m. with blue hair, a clutch purse sagging with dexies, and the air of “deposed royalty.” She asks Chess for a light. “Of course I had a light. I was born with a Zippo in my hand,” Chess tells the reader. The Marr-Löwensteins, Salinger-esque in some ways (the one Chess falls for is named Jerry), are the novel’s biggest problem. Unremittingly described in the most extreme, overheated terms, not one of them ever seems like a real person, and they don’t act like real people either, disappearing without a trace for years at a time, reappearing in places they can’t possibly know Chess will be, both more awful and more magical than they need to be to engage our emotions.
When all is said and done, one’s love/hate relationship with this book leans to the side of love.