It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.
She devises a plan get out, but a
mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an
investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her
conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie
is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine
underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling
temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.
characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling
novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich
story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can
shape our destiny.
I'm gonna tell you, reading this book I felt like I was at a smorgasbord where all my favorites were being served. First, this book is by an author who wrote one of the best books I read last year: Ruta Sepetys. Second, it's an historical young adult that takes place in my absolute favorite decade of the 20th century: the fifties. Finally, it's set in one of the cities I love best in the United States: New Orleans, or as natives would say, Nawlins. I gotta tell you, I was in hog heaven for three days reading this one.
The story starts out where you least expect it to. Well, for a young adult novel that is -- in a brothel. The main character, Josie, is introduced and even as a child, she shines so bright it's like you KNOW this book is just going to get better and better. And it does. Josie is a tough cookie, but at the same time she's sweet as pudding. She has high morals and just wants to escape the sordid life her mother has put her in, but to do that she has to play the game of manipulation herself. And she's good at it. There were moments where you feel soooo bad for Josie (like when we're told that her mother came a parent's night dressed in a fur coat with nothing under neath!), and you want her to win and get out of her situation more than anything. And then things just get worse -- all due to her mother. I hated her mom, I truly did, but what struck me about Josie's character is that she doesn't let herself feel that hate. It makes you scratch your head while thinking to yourself, well, that's actually quite admirable. Because hate makes people ugly, and although Josie's desperation drives her to do some unexpected things, her character is anything but ugly.
But Sepetys didn't stop at Josie's character. No, there are a whole cast of colorful and loving and unexpected characters. Confession time: back when I was in high school I came across a book packed away in my mom's closet, a book entitled *get ready to gasp* The Happy Hooker, written by then New York madam, Xavier Hollander. Oh, how I devoured that book! (okay, you can stop gasping now). The thing that struck me about The Happy Hooker was how the prostitutes were portrayed as...well, as happy. And like... well, like a family. It was eye-opening, and I mention it because reading Out of the Easy and watching all of the brothel characters in this book reminded me of The Happy Hooker, minus the erotic aspects of course. First we have Willie, the brothel madam, who seems like this hard-hearted beast at first but who we come to learn is really a caring woman, almost like a mother to Josie. Then there are the prostitutes. They all have their own quirky personalities. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at all times just like a family. We're not made to forget that they're prostitutes though - there are plenty of fun descriptions of their patrons and green feather boas and what not -- but at the same time you get a sense of empowerment through them. These women had life throw them a curve, and they learned to roll with it and not let it roll them over. It was well done, and I give Sepetys huge kudos for portraying the women this way. It also kind of makes me wonder if she ever read The Happy Hooker herself. :)
Touching a bit on themes: one that stands out in this story is that monetary worth and societal position does not make a person what they are. We see this again and again as we wade through the story. The prostitutes in the brothel are not bad people. Willie is not a heartless old crone. Cokie is not just a poor cab driver, but a good friend. And on the flipside, a rich businessman has more creep to him than respectability. All of these people have helped to shape Josie's character and personality. They've given her hope and dreams and love that she otherwise wouldn't have had. Warning: spoiler!!!! : I really thought that this was set up for Josie to come to the realization that New Orleans isn't a beast afterall, but her home, as Willie tries to convince her. However, Sepetys doesn't seem to take the lesson that far. She never brings Josie to the conclusion that she can love New Orleans, with all its faults, because its the people who make a place home. When Josie leaves it does indeed seem as though she's leaving everyone and everything behind.
After finishing this book, I read through the acknowledgments, which I tend to do these days just for fun. I was surprised, and quite happy, to find that Anne Rice inspired Sepetys's writing of the New Orleans setting. I won't say that I felt quite as immersed as I always feel when reading Anne Rice, but I do think she did a decent job. The details were there - the descriptive architecture, the food, the sounds of the French Quarter, the smell of the streets after a night of partying. It gave me a little tug that whispered, "let's go there again!" and at the same time made me want to revisit some of Rice's stories.
Overall, I'd give this book 5 stars. Great characters, wonderful setting, excellent writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it!