IT IS NO SMALL FEAT to capture the texture of youth, at once universal and unique, without sliding into the sentimental. To render it in the well-worn streets of the United States’s most lionized city is another task entirely. Part coming-of-age novel, part social critique, Dana Czapnik’s The Falconer uses New York City in the ’90s as a point of comparison to remind us that not much has changed in the ways in which women are allowed to grow up.

In main character Lucy Adler, we find the misfit, the familiar stranger akin to the cast of Freaks and Geeks whose challenges both comfort and enrage us. Lucy is a welcome protagonist for those of us who are, like her, from here and nowhere. Seventeen years old and marooned in the friend zone by her childhood best friend and crush Percy, this self-proclaimed pizza bagel (half-Jewish, half-Italian) with a penchant for physics and basketball navigates through the obstacle course of adulthood in the still un-shellacked streets of 1993 New York City. Her attitude is emblematic of adolescence, oscillating from indifference to insecurity to a paralyzing wonder at the beauty of the world, all before the backdrop of an iconic cityscape and scored to the golden age of hip-hop. In this multicultural starburst of Manhattan past come the triumphs and trials of belonging that are the heartbeat of the novel.

We first encounter Lucy on a public court, battling her intoxication with the pure physicality of Percy’s body as they play one-on-one. Through his references to French nihilism and the moral bankruptcy of his banker father, we quickly glean that Percy is an aspiring existentialist determined to disavow his upper-class roots. Lucy turns a blind eye to Percy’s hypocrisy, his escapades with other more “womanly” women, his desire to go to San Diego upon graduation since, according to him, the girls there are “the way they should be,” and his strange bouts of jealousy as she secretly negotiates her ability to be both boy-obsessed and a tomboy. It is via the prism of her relationship with Percy that Lucy begins to forge her way through and against the current of normative gender roles.

With prose that mimics Lucy’s athletic skills — at times muscular, at others poetic — author Dana Czapnik glides between biting wit and philosophical musings on the nature of love and being. The book delivers on poignant wisdoms about growing up reminiscent of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Acutely aware of the fleeting nature of youth, Lucy muses on the flammability of time, how easily it is burned down to its wick; yet she wonders, when one is young, what else is there to do with time but waste it? Lucy listens enraptured as her Dominican-American friend Alexis orders Italian ices in Spanish, pleased with the other side of Alexis that Spanish shows her, concluding that language serves as a hiding spot for our “secret selves.” But where Salinger stalls in teenage cynicism and the tragedy of excess, Czapnik moves beyond it. While Holden wields alienation as self-protection and his wit as social critique, Lucy can’t help but share her radical honesty with the reader. She speaks to us as she would a close friend, revealing her vulnerabilities, fears, and ultimately her enduring hope. But Czapnik soon shows us that female authenticity comes at a price, painting Lucy’s social alienation as an effect of her commitment to her true nature. For Holden, alienation is in large part chosen, whereas for Lucy exile from her peer group is forced upon her as a result of her complexity. Thus, in many ways, The Falconer serves as a gentle amendment to this seminal text, probing the possibilities of womanhood and belonging.

By the time Lucy reveals her unrequited love for Percy, we know we’re neck-deep in nostalgia, one that has wormed its way in through heartbreak and friendship under neon pink sunsets in mid-’90s Manhattan, and it isn’t until quick-tongued, soulful Alexis identifies the sensation — Tienes añoranza, she tells Lucy — that the weight of it begins to dissipate, foreshadowing a splintering yet to come. After Lucy overcomes the agony of defeat in love, she runs toward the thrill of victory in disavowing anyone else’s definition of wholeness. Lifting the añoranza just as Lucy’s story ends, the book becomes a manifesto of anti-añoranza, a lesson in the dangers of pining for the past as well as the impossibility of normative gender belonging. By cracking gender standards in two, Czapnik nods to the potentialities of female agency when untethered from the unattainable ideals that women are held to. Czapnik suggests nostalgia as a hindrance to experiential living; she lets us inhabit nostalgia for 200 pages ultimately to show us its pitfalls.

Unacknowledged as a woman for her athleticism, Lucy functions as a kind of gender nomad, wandering into the normative territories of both sexes and not quite finding a home. She Goldilocks her way through different models of female identity to find one that will hold both her aspirations and desires. There’s her cousin Violet, a provincial wannabe-radical artist who espouses social dissent yet gives up the bohemian dream to take a cushy marketing job and keep company with a cheating, emotionally abusive deadbeat. Violet’s roommate Max is a brash conceptual artist whose claims to fame are an American flag made of dildos and a six-foot Barbie sign painted with Pepto-Bismol: “I want it to feel like the Blob,” Max says of the piece. “Like if you stand too close, you will be devoured, consumed, suff-o-cated by the pink, the pink, the pink.” Max’s fame stems from her rejection of all things stereotypically feminine, still yet another trap of binary thinking. Her anti-empathy and disdain for aesthetics reveal a menacing essentialism. Janie Gruener, Lucy’s frazzled middle-aged neighbor who can barely balance her family life with her career, prompts Lucy to contemplate the female labor poured into “having it all.” The expectation of women to both aspire to and deny their own beauty also confuses Lucy, perfectly illustrated when she checks the “pretty” box on a survey meant to self-evaluate her attractiveness and is consequently dubbed delusional by her classmates. Lucy grows to resent how standards of beauty define her value in the eyes of others. Even the popular girls in The Falconer, despite seeming like they have everything, often feel like they have nothing. Whether these models are unhealthy allegiances to or reactions against normative female identity, they uphold fixed gender roles that Lucy can’t situate herself within.

Czapnik points to the places where nostalgia is gendered, exemplified by Lucy’s fascination with the statue of The Falconer in Central Park, the book’s namesake. Looking up at the regal rendering of a boy triumphant, Lucy observes that glorified femininity is often “unfun.” Women are memorialized as half-naked, reclined on a couch, never activated by pride, never captured mid-step into victory. Girls are not given permission to act with abandon. Lucy recalls the limited access she was granted by her male peers on the court, which effectively ejected her from the world of the girls. The boys let her participate without giving her any power while the girls kick her out of their clique for playing with the boys. “But I didn’t want to be a boy,” Lucy clarifies, “I wanted to be a girl who had fun. My version of fun.” Through her questioning of a woman’s capacity to be beautiful as well as athletic, determined, and loved, Lucy begins to negotiate her place beyond assumed polarities of sex. Lucy’s ability to poke fun at and lament the fixed gender roles that staple her into a virginal adolescence prompt the reader to rethink what belonging and desire could look like for women.

Where the book blunders belonging is its forced kinship across race and class. Lightbulb moments abound when Lucy’s basketball team plays a large public school in Staten Island. She is taken aback by the unkempt décor of the building, the “rowdy” audience, and the rough and tumble way that the other team advances. Struggling to keep up in a tough game, Lucy concludes that her team is playing to win while the other team is playing to beat them, perpetuating dangerous equations between class and violence. At the end of the game Lucy half-heartedly acquiesces to a tipped socioeconomic scale, acknowledging her private school’s racist past while in the same breath reminding the reader that half her team is not white. What Lucy seems to be forgetting here is that she herself is white, and that marginality is not a game of associations. Are these moments meant to be teachable for more privileged readers or an olive branch for audiences historically under-represented in the coming-of-age novel?

Lucy makes a more forceful grasp at oppression when she claims that she was more comfortable in the apartment of her childhood friend Deepti, the daughter of immigrants, than Percy’s pristine Riverside Drive home. Deepti’s apartment is described as being in a state of constant clutter, which the reader may assume is typical of all immigrant households. Lucy attempts to further prove her family’s humility by citing the fact that her parents do not employ a maid from “some poverty-stricken place in Mexico or Puerto Rico.” Even Lucy’s relationship with Alexis veers into tokenization. Alexis’s shy confession that taking her mother to a seedy carnival instead of Disneyworld (and her mother loving it all the same) was the highlight of her year translates into a clumsy attempt at including the “Other.” Like a second-rate documentary, one could see the hand of the maker. Perhaps these blind spots are true to life, but they still beg for more artful interrogation within the text. As is, they read as upper-middle-class angst — not affluent enough for a lifetime guarantee of comfort and too financially secure to complain.

Despite these tone-deaf moments, the book builds up to an engaging differánce underneath the surface — a third possibility beyond the life choices that Lucy is presented with. In pure Barthesian fashion, it is love (or the illusion of love) that creates the rupture in yearning. When Lucy and Percy engage in dispassionate sex, the funhouse mirror finally cracks. Lucy begins to see Percy as he is, and through him, the world as it is.

The beauty of the book is its performance of withholding — its replication of the waiting room that is teendom and the gilded cage of reminiscence. In inhabiting añoranza the book also rejects it, warning against the dangers of overdosing on idealism. By the end of the novel, Lucy bursts forth in a kind of differential consciousness, shedding the binaries of gender, success, romantic love, and creativity to find some third option, some over-there-ness. She looks out at Manhattan and wonders the ways in which she will miss it. She anticipates the añoranza, but as she contemplates it she also escapes it. She lets go of who she wishes all the people in her life would be, and accepts them for who they are: the crush who will most likely become an unhappy investment banker, the bombastic radical who performs her way into the Whitney Biennial, the outspoken but painfully jealous cousin, and finally, the various categories of herself.

In The Falconer’s closing pages, Lucy blows a last kiss to her past’s romantic attachments:

Dear Percy, you will always be my very favorite optical illusion.

One day in the distant future, I will think about you again, and my heart will lurch in an ancient muscle memory. And the fleeting sting of the moment will have nothing to do with you and everything do with the seventeen-year-old girl who loved you and the impossibility of unforgetting her.

[…]

Up on the roof, I zigzag my way around pools of water. The steamy smell of rain lingers. I take in all the honking and the construction and the conversations below me. Soon I’ll figure out what I love more, New York from the inside or New York from a distance. It feels like the city is begging me to stay. Just look at me, it’s saying. Don’t leave, it’s saying. But that’s just my own añoranza. New York doesn’t care one way or the other.

Lucy reminds us that “we are a river that runs both ways.” Remembering serves its purpose: it brings us back to all the selves we used to be, allowing us to re-enter places we can never return to. In exiting the past, we animate the present, surrendering peacefully to the possibilities of the future.

¤

Rosa Boshier is a Pushcart Prize–nominated author whose work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Entropy, and The Acentos Review, among others.