Whether it’s courtesan, harlot, hooker, or whore, Josie Moraine can’t escape the false name calling on the streets of 1950s New Orleans. Someone in her family is a prostitute, but it is her mother, not her. Josie’s been living on her own in an apartment above the bookstore in which she works since her eleventh birthday. As desperately as she may want to, she can’t escape the association completely. Part of her mother’s arrangement is contingent upon Josie working for her mother’s tough-as-nails boss madam Willie Woodley by cleaning the brothel rooms, reporting anything unusual and turning in missing belongings. Josie dreams of a day when she won’t need to carry a gun in public or watch her valuable possessions like a hawk. She longs to attend college before bad luck and poverty force her to follow in her mother’s footsteps. When Josie befriends a Smith College student from uptown Josie’s dream begins to become a real possibility until her mother becomes a suspect in a murder investigation. When her life is in danger, does Josie have the happenstance and sheer will to change her fate?
Even though I haven’t read Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray, I was eager to meet her and get a signed copy of Out of The Easy at NCTE last November. After waiting in line what I didn’t expect was to be greeted at the end by such personable warmth. At that point I couldn’t care less what Out of The Easy was about – I committed to read it with the hope to return comparable good will in the form of a book review. As I learned much later as the first reviews started to pour in, all that was necessary to know beforehand for me was that Out of The Easy is historical YA and character-driven. While I have enjoyed many well-plotted novels, it is the well-written character-driven novel I cherish, and with that it was decided: I grabbed my ARC off the shelf almost immediately and began reading.
For a novel that is not necessarily fast-paced, I read Out of The Easy in two days and have been mulling it over ever since. One of the questions that has been going through my mind is what makes a character great, and how that may differ from genre to genre, and most certainly from reader to reader. Even in a character with whom a reader identifies most, there will always be dissimilarities between the life of the reader and the character. This goes without saying. Afterall, the best books are both windows and mirrors. I believe this is why both historical fiction and fantasy are attractive to me. Of course contemporary fiction also offers many windows but I read it more to see myself, my time, and the people around me. What amazes me about characters like Josie is how we can have almost nothing in common and yet I feel connected to her. There is sympathy too, but not pity. Her mother may win the prize for worst in YA literature but Josie is surrounded by people who care about her. For a cutthroat business woman with a self-proclaimed dislike of children, madam Willie becomes the only mother figure Josie has, not to mention one of the best gray characters you’ll ever meet. The chauffeur Cokie is also always there to look after Josie, and the Marlowes, the father and son duo who run the book shop, love her like their own. Nevertheless, Josie is trained to fire a gun, and rightfully fears that her life savings or her few prized keepsakes will be stolen as they have in the past. In this respect her life couldn’t be more different than the bulk of her readers. I suppose framed photos weren’t yet ubiquitous in the 1950s but these lines shocked me nonetheless (from my uncorrected ARC):
I stared at the pictures. If someone meant something to you, you put their photo in a silver frame and displayed it, like these. I had never seen anything like it.
If that doesn’t make you feel sympathy or different from Josie I don’t know what will. But then Josie has this shining love of literature, and a competence beyond her years for bookselling, and a small yet bright hope of attending college at an elite school in Massachusetts things to which any bibliophile or academic can relate. There is a small romantic subplot but the focus is appropriately on Josie and the seedy underbelly of 1950s New Orleans. Still, Out of The Easy transcends the norm of predictability in character driven novels. I didn’t see one of the many concluding events coming, nor did I foresee the brothel madam Willie almost stealing the book – and my heart – away from Josie. I was happy and unsurprised to read that she is based on the real New Orleans madam Norma Wallace. If I can get over my aversion to WWII/Holocaust fiction I will pick up Between Shades of Gray and expect the spot-on characterization and meticulously-researched historical background found in Out of The Easy. If you enjoy either of these qualities in a book it shouldn’t be missed.
Out of The Easy is due out February 12.
A Reader of Fictions review – “Sepetys’ sophomore novel shines just as much as her debut.”
Book Nut review – “Sepetys knows how to engage the reader, to write in a way that makes these characters fully dimensional.”
Pure Imagination review – “…an unexpected gem for me.”
Tempting Persephone review – “For readers who like character-driven stories about strong but still vulnerable heroines…”
The Midnight Garden review – “I think I’ve figured out my problem with Sepetys: there just isn’t enough.”