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It's the early 1980s, MTV is in its infancy, the Internet does not exist, Ronald Reagan is president and yuppies are ruling Wall Street. Edie is a naïve NYU student desperate to lose her virginity and to experience adventure that will finally make her worldly, setting her further apart from her bland suburban roots. But in her quest to mold herself into an ideal of urban sophistication, the New Jersey-born co-ed gets more than she bargained for, triggering a chain of events that will have lasting repercussions.
It was an era before cell phones, the Internet did not exist, disco was dying, about to be swallowed whole by New Wave and AIDS, which hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream, would soon become a death sentence ending a person’s life within two years of infection. Carter had only one year left of his failed, one-term presidency. Reaganomics—and yuppies—were looming.
Though still heavily ravaged by the urban blight that had nearly decimated it earlier in the decade, New York City was starting to undergo a period of renewal and rebirth thanks to its new feisty mayor Ed Koch.
Into this fray I entered as an NYU student, naïve, curious, not knowing what the future would bring. But then I didn’t care, choosing to live in the present. Willful obliviousness suited me just fine.
Peter, my first real boyfriend (translated into the vernacular: the first guy I slept with), used to always tell me I was an existentialist. But that confused me especially because I knew that underneath this veneer that classmates used to say was so deep and cerebral lurked a fluttery airhead, more influenced by appearances and artifice than she let on.
I had briefly studied existentialism when I was a high school senior taking advanced humanities with Mrs. Stein at Fair Lawn High School, an unusually good public school made possible by the enormous taxes levied against its local citizenry.
Mrs. Stein was very eclectic with the syllabus. We read Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” (a book about wronged innocence that resonated strongly with my callow self), Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” the latter considered both a literary classic and a benchmark of the existential movement.
“The Stranger” was about an emotionally impassive Frenchman, Mersault, who experiences all sorts of tragedies—he even murders someone and goes on trial for it—while remaining curiously detached throughout. Was he a sociopath? Did he feel any kind of remorse for his actions? Why didn’t he cry when his mother died?
When Mrs. Stein would describe the protagonist as someone who embodied the existential doctrine of self-determination and assuming responsibilities for one’s choices, all I could think of was a sleek and tall Frenchman, fashionably attired in black from head to toe, wearing a beret and sitting in a Parisian café, sipping lattes and eating croissants while having animated philosophical discourses with friends and borderline foes. It was an image of sophistication I was desperate to emulate ever since my parents took me two years earlier to Café Feenjon on MacDougal Street to hear Israeli musicians play cheesy Middle-Eastern music.
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