Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
The clouds shifted, and the glow of sun brightened on my face. “But she's from a really wealthy family, a good family, and she's a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts. She even flies a plane. Charlotte kept telling me that I should apply to Smith. I know it sounds ridiculous, me being able to go to a prestigious school like that, but she sent me all the information.”
Suddenly, the insanity of the whole thing came into focus, and I nearly laughed.
“But for some reason, I began to want it, really badly. I told Willie, and she was mad. She said I had to go to school here in New Orleans, that I was out of my league trying to get into a college like that.”
Willie Woodley, the madam who owns and officiates over a high class brothel on Conti Street in New Orleans loves Josie Moraine as only a mother can love a child, love that never came from Josie's natural mother. Set in the milieu unique to the fifties, Out of the Easy brings a flavor and cast of characters that only that time and place can offer.
The novel's setting and characters could have been a humdrum of stereotypes, but in the hands of gifted writer, Ruta Sepetys, who wrote the excellent Between Shades of Gray, it's the polar opposite.
Josie and Willie stole my heart. I cheered for them; shed a tear or two for them when I despaired for them; and most of all, believed in them.
Josie's mother, Louise, has no redeeming qualities. She's a prostitute with no qualms about who she uses for her own purposes, which is mainly to use others to get what she wants--money and things. At age seven Josie comes to live in Willie's brothel with her mother who has no consideration for what Josie will see or experience. This house frames its beguiling women in dark brocade curtains, crystal chandeliers and paintings on the walls of nude women with expansive nipples.
Josie much prefers the local bookstore. She wanders about the shop in awe of the many books that rise above her like skyscrapers. Charlie, the owner, notices this quiet child. He befriends her and by the time she reaches eleven, he's offered her a room in his attic. To Josie, it's a secret garden filled with the smell of paper, the whisper of pages turning and the kindness of a truly fine person.
Neither the kindness of Charlie nor the love of Willie will protect Josie from the inescapable reality of her life.
Josie dons rubber gloves to clean the brothel as she dreams of the father she never knew, of attending college and becoming successful and independent.
Shattering her dreams, Josie's mother brings her gangster boyfriend into her life tangling Josie into a web sticky with death and theft. The gangster, Tangle Eye, cares nothing for either his girlfriend or her daughter. He's all about scamming and using.
At sixteen Josie meets a Charlotte, a new friend who believes she has what it takes to go to college, an exclusive one where she will be welcome with open arms--Smith College she's told will be just the place for her. There are ways to get the money, scholarships and grants. She can get help. She can go.
Josie begins to believe in the possibility of getting "Out of the Easy." She knows it won't be a breeze to slip out of town, but she also believes it can happen.
That is, until everything that can go wrong, does.
Her newly-found friend's father does not have the innate goodness in him that his daughter has. He connives to get Josie into a compromising situation, tries to cajole and to force his way with her. Josie's terrified and disgusted. Things only get worse for Josie when a man comes into the bookstore while she's working. She watches him carefully dreaming that perhaps him or someone much like him could be her father. This fantasy father later is found dead, making Josie fearful of what may happen to her. Her mother and Tangled Eye may have some involvement in his demise, or not. Josie doesn't know for certain what's happened.
Sepetys has written a novel that will charm, dismay and lift you up.
The strong characterizations will entrance you. Josie will steal your heart. The story will give you hope that under the direst of circumstances truth, honor and determination can prevail. This is a hope-filled novel.
I unabashedly want to shout out cheers for this fine novel. I have a soft spot for characters who can rise above circumstances that to some may look abysmal, seemingly without hope for soaring above what for many could be a condemnation to a sad and meaningless life. Josie Moraine isn't weak. She's triumphant and admirable.
All of the characters in Out of the Easy, with the exemption of the selfish mother, Tangle Eye and Charlotte's father make for a cast of complex and likable characters. They won my affection and Sepetys' writing captivated me.
Disclosure: Review copy received from the publisher.