Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
I was a bit hesitant to pick this book up as I loved Sepetys’ first novel Between Shades of Gray and I was worried this wouldn’t be half as good. And though it wasn’t quite as brilliant, but a lot better than I expected.
This story follows Josie Moraine, a young 17 year old girl working two jobs as a local bookseller and a cleaner at the brothel where her mother works. She wants nothing more than to leave The Big Easy and go away to college out in Massachusetts at Smith where nobody will know her, or her background. On New Year’s Eve a man walks into the bookshop and Josie is enchanted by him – however only hours later he is reported dead, and Josie is determined to find out how a young, healthy and well-educated man came to die so suddenly.
First of all, I adored the setting of this book. 1950’s New Orlean’s was so rich and vibrant whilst also being dark and menacing at the same time. It was a brilliant backdrop for this story and one of the things I loved most about it.
Our main character Josie was a really interesting protagonist; she was intelligent, curious, very driven and focused; but she was also extremely flawed. One of the things that stood out most to me was Josie’s moral complex when it came to being associated with her mother, a sex worker. She was utterly convinced and obstinate that she was far above her mother, and whilst some of it was due to her love of books and desire to be educated, another part of it I felt was utterly justified due to her mother’s actions throughout the book. Despite not always agreeing with her, I still found myself rooting for Josie and found her a very compelling main character who I didn’t always agree with.
I loved the other characters in this book a lot. Patrick, Josie’s co-worker at the bookshop and long time best friend, quickly became a favourite of mine and I loved where his story-line went. Jesse Thierry was not who I expected him to be but I was pleasantly surprised. There was easily a setup for a love triangle in this book but it didn’t happen which I am eternally grateful for. I think one of the most interesting character’s though was Willie, the madam of the brothel where Josie works at. Willie acts a a mother figure to Josie due to her mother’s lack of interest in her life and I thought their relationship was wonderful and extremely layered.
One thing I will say is that obviously sex work plays a major role in this novel and I felt like the exploration of this could’ve been done better. I felt like we got a surface level reading and that the portrayal was a bit bland and stereotypical. All the women who work at the brothel adore Josie and dote on her and Willie is portrayed as a very complex, strong-minded and determined businesswoman. However the issues surrounding prostitution are very complex and these could’ve been explored more rather than at the surface level they were.
The writing in this book, much like in Between Shades of Gray was utterly beautiful and I would find myself re-reading lines just because I loved them so much. One of my favourite’s is:
“Charlie Marlowe never wrote horror, but somehow horror was writing Charlie Marlowe.”
Overall I did really enjoy this book and it was unlike any other historical fiction book I’ve read to date. This book has solidified Ruta Sepetys as one of my favourite authors and I will buy any of her books (including Salt to the Sea which comes out next week and I am so excited for!). This book was mysterious and atmospheric and I highly recommend you pick it up soon.