Where did you learn how to be a woman? Was it from your mother, your sister? An older friend? A diva on TV? I sometimes joke that I learned how to be a woman from Wong Kar-Wai movies and the Wikipedia article on Mae West. Early 2000s tabloid culture and YouTube makeup tutorials must have played a hand as well — it certainly wasn’t my mother’s influence that had me attempting a cateye and red lip at the age of twelve.
Happy Hour, Marlowe Granados’s debut novel, is about that kind of cultivated femininity. The protagonist is Isa Epley, worldly and motherless at twenty-one, who seems to have learned everything she knows about womanhood from 1940s film stars and midcentury screwball novels. “My mother always told me that to be a girl one must be especially clever,” she says in the opening line. Full of verve and authority and aphorisms, Isa’s narration is charming and appropriately Mid-Atlantic — she’s just arrived in New York from London, after all, even if it is 2012. “Before landing at JFK, I had three Bloody Marys and an extra piece of cake that fell apart in my mouth. A person should never take on a city with an empty stomach, and I am always hungry.”
This opening establishes the tone and priorities of the novel: it’s mannered, full of old-fashioned syntax like “one must” and an understanding of gender relations that could have emerged in 1890 or 1957 or last week. It’s knowing, with a winking tone that belies Isa’s youth and (relative) inexperience. And it’s wanting. Food, drink, experience: our heroine is hungry for all of it.
I am writing the first draft of this review sitting at a bar, using a pen I borrowed off a good-looking bartender named Travis. I finished Happy Hour about fifteen minutes ago (squinting at the end because the lighting here is rather dim). I am on my second cocktail, served in a coupe glass. I can only write when I feel as if I am on display, which is why I’m scribbling alone in this crowded Brooklyn bar on the first night of September, hoping the scenery will help imbue my piece with an appropriately glittering sense of atmosphere.
This morning at the coffee shop a pretty brunette waitress asked if she could examine my copy of the book. “I never do this, but I heard about this one and I just love the cover art,” she said as she read the blurbs. I told her I was reviewing it, which was why I had a copy early. “Are you a writer?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. She said, “Me too.”
Happy Hour is a novel for strivers. The book follows Isa and her best friend Gala Novak as they navigate a glamorous, penniless summer in the city. They have come from elsewhere, and they haven’t got any work papers — but they do have a Bed-Stuy sublet, a trunk of vintage clothes to sell at a flea market, and an established cast of friends, frenemies, enemies, ex-lovers, and maybe-lovers to invite them to parties. Their currency is youth, charm, and beauty, and they understand this intimately: “I can’t tell you how much pressure is put on girls like me and Gala to give other people a good time,” Isa says. They skate by on generosity and gender roles, traipsing through New York accepting the kindness of strangers: house-sitting gigs, open bars, random invites to the Hamptons. Unfortunately, the currency of charm is no substitute for actual currency, especially if you are trying — as Isa and Gala are — to avoid doing anything you don’t want to do.
The book has been called a “hot girl summer” novel, which is accurate insofar as it describes a lifestyle that is only possible if you’re pretty. Really, it’s a novel of the demimonde: the half-in, half-out life of precarity that has been available to broke beautiful women more or less since the beginning of rich men. I was intrigued when I saw that Happy Hour would be published in the U.S. by Verso Books, the radical-intellectual press that mostly publishes dense theory with titles like The Tragedy of the Worker and Feminist Antifascism. But while Happy Hour is absolutely in a different category — it’s more fun, first of all — the narrative is carved by a keen understanding of class and power. Isa and Gala aren’t trying to dismantle anything, and neither is Granados. She is, though, very interested in illuminating how powerful people — i.e., those with money — behave towards less powerful people — i.e., broke brown girls without visas — when the powerless refuse, as Isa sometimes does, to sing for their supper.
One of the bar’s owners has sat down next to me and introduced himself. He is curious where my boyfriend is. He has lines. None of them are as good as Isa’s. Here’s a nice one: “Maybe the best people to know are the types who are bad at making friends, and from what I have seen those people are usually writers, academics, or critics. They seem keen to alienate, and I think this is the type to truly give Gala and me the education we need.”
I am keen to alienate at this exact moment. It is extraordinarily difficult to write at a bar. I suppose Hemingway could get away with it because he wasn’t a girl. But what I lack in focus I hope I am making up for in material.
Happy Hour is also funny and refreshingly contextless. The characters have enough backstory to feel real, but it’s not really Granados’s concern why they’ve come to New York or how exactly they’ve ended up in their social milieu. The business at hand is how to have a good time. Granados paints a lush portrait of a certain New York social scene, and Isa is a clever, sardonic interpreter of all she sees. Each scene is either another party or night out, or a money-making scheme that goes awry. It owes quite a bit to the midcentury picaresque — I was reminded most aggressively of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, which chronicles an American girl’s misadventures in Paris — but it also evokes the very modern form of the Instagram story. (Or the TikTok, or the YouTube vlog.) It’s an aesthetic blur that communicates vibe above all else. The French 75s, the $1 happy hour oysters, the knockoff Pucci, the threadbare vintage Versace caftan, the life modeling gigs, the Meatpacking District club in need of “downtown” flavor — it’s all so lush and decadent and carefully curated. Granados is very good at painting a scene. She has an eye for detail, a great sense of comedic timing, and an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cocktails and designer brands that can be had for cheap via eBay. Reading this book is like watching a video from the party last night and wishing you’d been there.
But did the party even happen? Can it, anymore? Granados has characterized her leftist politics as the belief that “everyone should have access” to “nice things.” I am not immune to the allure of luxury socialism, but when it comes with a hefty dose of nostalgia I do tend to get suspicious. Happy Hour’s light anachronism (who was drinking French 75s in 2012, peak era for the pickleback shot? Please, I’m begging you, don’t say “hot girls”) is a pleasure to dive into. Sometimes, though, the old-fashioned sensibility has its drawbacks. Desire animates the book, but it’s always curiously chaste. Isa marvels at a beautiful boy named Theo; goes on a couple of failed dates with a rake named Noel; reflects on a past, abortive love affair; and even spends a few nights platonically sharing a bed with one man or another — but sex never seems to be in any danger of occurring, and men are primarily of interest as a way to procure cab fare. (There are hardly any drugs, either, which does not seem accurate to a certain New York social scene.) This relative wholesomeness is charming in the way old movies are charming, and I certainly wasn’t looking for trauma or grit from a narrative uninterested in either. I sometimes wished, though, that the characters felt as embodied as they felt embellished. The most acute physical feeling described in the book is hunger, which feels like a missed opportunity for a writer so deft at communicating sensuality.
Still, there’s plenty of pleasure and insight to be found in Happy Hour. It’s like Jean Rhys when drinking was still fun. Or like Anita Loos, but with socialist undertones that aren’t just a Soviet misreading. Or perhaps it’s most like a cocktail. No fewer than two blurbs on the back of the book partake of the comparison: Happy Hour is “as refreshing as a gin fizz,” writes Rachel Syme, and like “a swig of a very cold martini” according to Megan Nolan. I think it’s most like a glass of prosecco ordered early in the night: light and pleasing, it goes down easy, with bubbles that feel appealingly sharp in your throat. At the end — which comes too soon — you might be disappointed not to find yourself more intoxicated. But what does that matter? Better to pace yourself. The night is young, and you’ll need your wits about you.