There is a certain romance to old clothes. They speak of lives lived, of moments in time forgotten or remembered — a wedding gown, a soldier’s uniform, a man’s day suit in white linen, a letterman’s jacket. They can make us feel, as if a ghost of the person who wore them can share some of their essence with the living. It’s the sort of feeling that one young man in particular chases, working in a vintage clothing store, borrowing — and “borrowing” — the occasional outfit to wear to the funerals he and his best friend frequent, enjoying the ambiance of the cemetery and the pomp and pageantry of the event.
Told in first person, Vintage is the story of a young man half in love with death or, at least, the idea of it. The romance and the mystique of it. The idea of a ghost for a lover, of being touched with hands as cold as ice, of being caressed by the grave while chasing that little death … but as the ghost of the young man caresses his skin, the narrator grows colder. And the more his ghostly lover touches him, freezing his blood, stealing his breath with every kiss … the more substantial the ghost, himself, becomes.
This story is very much a gothic romance, replete with romance, fear, mystery, and mood. There is a cemetery, a woman driven mad by loss and the lingering presence of her missing child, and ghosts of the past haunting the present. It’s about a young man struggling against the lure of the grave and the ghosts who reach for him. It’s lyrical and lovely and languid, and it all takes place in a melancholy, atmospheric autumn.
It also has a small conceit that I would like to claim I caught onto early on … but I was at least three chapters into the story before I realized I had no idea what the main character’s name was. You see, the author didn’t give him one. The ghosts have names. His aunt has a name, his friends have names. Even the kid at the snack stand of the drive in has a name. But he himself remains nameless. For me, it added to some of the romance of the story and the mystery. It does, however, make writing a review a bit more challenging.
Our narrator grew up in a cold, distant, and emotionally abusive home with parents who wanted obedience from their son rather than love. It’s his aunt, who takes him in after he finally runs away when he’s outed at school, who teaches him what love can be. She makes no demands, asks no questions, only gives him a safe place to live and all the support he needs. The narrator, though he’s not yet 18, isn’t in school. Instead, he spends his days working at a vintage clothing shop — true vintage with truly vintage prices, not a thrift store with pretensions — and his life has an untethered quality to it. There’s no place to be, not really, since his boss is laid back and keeps the shop more as a hobby than a necessity.
It’s a lonely life, but the narrator is content. There’s a romance in solitude, even if he’d prefer more a romance-romance with a handsome boy. When Josh, the ghost of Route 47, follows him home, follows him into his room and demands to be loved … it’s as if his wish came true. To be wanted, to be kissed and held, even by hands that feel like ice, seems like everything he should want. Even as he feels the chill within his chest where Josh’s hands brush over his heart and lungs, he still wants more. And if it weren’t for Second Mike, he might be tempted to give in.
Second Mike’s life is a gothic tragedy. Once upon a time, there was a man and his wife and their two children, a daughter and a son. But their son, Mike, vanished into the night, and no one knows what happened to him. The man’s wife broke, her mind and soul shattering, but somehow she managed to convince her husband she was well enough, recovered enough, and they had another son and she named him Mike too. Second Mike. He lives in his brother’s room. His brother’s clothes share space with his own in the dresser — sometimes he wears them. His brother’s toys are on the shelves, his brother’s sheets on the bed. He doesn’t even have his own name.
But he has a crush on the narrator, his sister’s best friend, and the courage to steal a kiss.
This book has so much mood in it, so much atmosphere that it may not be to everyone’s taste. But I found it to have a quiet thoughtfulness, an introspective sincerity that appealed to me. The small touches, such as the world building with the ghosts, felt familiar. Not in the “seen that” way, but in the comfort of something familiar, the fondness of nostalgia. Personally, it reads very much like a late ‘90s paranormal book or TV show, because it was, originally, written in the late ’90s. It’s that sincerity that helps it feel grounded and real rather than a costume put on for effect. The characters are very much a part of their time, and their world view, their approach to ghosts and rituals and relationships, are in keeping with the reality of the story.
This version, the re-release 13th Anniversary Edition, comes with a forward from Holly Black and a gorgeous cover. For me, it all worked. This is a beautifully written, thoughtful romance. I hope you give it a try, and if you do, I hope that you enjoy it.