Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Year: 2013
Read: May 2013
Rating: **** (4 stars)
The Quick and Dirty:Josie lives in the bustling world of prostitutes, gangsters and booksellers in the 1950 New Orleans French Quarter. Over the course of half a year she explores a way to get away, but the pressures of her world threaten to trap her there. Exciting reading, but could have had better character development.
The Wordy Version:
Josie’s mother is a prostitute in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950, but Jo craves respectability. Visitors to the bookstore where she works and lives start to assume that she’s a college student, so she sees applying to Smith College as a way to leave the town that knows she’s connected to a brothel, and escape from the trouble her mother makes. As her acceptance to Smith begins to look more improbable, Jo’s need to get away increases—she may have implicated herself in a murder, gotten mixed up with the mob, and alienated her only friends.
Considering how hard it was to pull away from the book while I was reading it, I’m a little surprised that my feelings towards the book a few weeks later are mixed. There was a lot of crazy drama in the story—mobsters, prostitutes, blackmail, theft, secrets, guns, murder—and a lot of more normal drama—parent/child relationships, coming-of-age, gentle romance, college applications. With so much happening in the story, it was far from a dull book. Towards the end it was almost impossible to put the book down.
And it’s not just the elements that grab you; Sepetys has a great sense of suspense. The first sentence is, “My mother’s a prostitute.” It’s short, direct, tonally neutral, and pulled me straight into the book. The second chapter introduces some of the foreboding that will overtake the story later. Everyone begins to warn Josie of the return of “Cincinnati,” the dangerous low-level mobster Jo’s mother loves. Josie locks down her room, but closing the drapes can’t block out the ominous “CINCYNATTY” written on a note for her.
There is so much excitement that I think character development is short-changed. Cincinnati is bad, but in a boogeyman sort of way; Josie’s mother is stupid but still has some hold on her that isn’t fully explained; Patrick is a devoted son struggling with his romantic feelings, yet Jo doesn’t figure it out until after Patrick leaves so that aspect of his character essentially goes nowhere. The guy trying to get Josie to pimp herself to him is gross. Jesse, the too-attractive-for-me, smart motorcyclist, is basically just those adjectives. I wanted to cheer him on in his romancing efforts, but I didn’t think he was developed enough to make chemistry.
The characters that are most successfully rendered are Willie, the madam, and Cokie, the brothel’s driver. It helps that these are the closest people to parents that Jo has, and so the only development that truly has to occur for them is for Josie to see, through her teenage parent bias, the depths of their love for her. The book could have used more Willie instead of one of the other supplemental characters.
Josie is half cool and half irritating as can be. She’s a hard-worker, realistic but hopeful about the future, and her seven-year-old self was very spunky. But she’s so immature in her dealings with Willie in the second half of the book that I just wanted to shake her. This is probably just some facet of naturalism about rendering a teenager, but Jo handles many things so well that when she starts to get tunnel-vision, it’s jarring.
So, great plot populated by flat characters = exciting reading but a little disappointing in retrospect.