Despite its name, life isn't easy in the Big Easy. To being with, Josie mother has an abusive boyfriend, Cincinnati, who has just arrived back in town, which always means trouble. So, when a wealthy Alabama businessman, Forest Hearne, suddenly dies after buying books from Josie and later being seen with her mother, the police want to know about it.
Things don't look any better after Josie finds an expensive watch belonging to the dead man under her mother's bed at the brothel where Josie cleans every morning. Worse still, Josie has kept the check Hearne had given her to pay for his books. Forest Hearne had been so kind and treated her so nicely, she began thinking/pretending he was the father she didn't know, hoping that at least half of her came from someone good. Now both watch and check are hidden under a floorboard in Josie's room and her mother and Cincinnati have just off to Hollywood.
But Josie has supporters - Patrick Marlowe, Charlie's son, is a real confidante and friend, with whom she works in the bookstore; Jesse Thierry, a high school friend who would like to be more than friends; Willie Woolley, the madam who owns the brothel Josie's mother works in and who does her best to keep Josie out of the family business; Cokie, Willie's chauffeur; and finally Charlotte, a new friend met at the bookstore who encourages Josie to apply to Smith College in Northampton, MA, far from the Quarter.
And Josie also has enemies - John Lockwood, Charlotte's uncle, a smarmy businessman who would love to be her first and drag Josie into becoming his personal courtesan; and Carlos Marcello, a gangster who shows no mercy to anyone who double crosses him and knows just how to leave no bodies.
After Forest Hearne's death turns out to be murder, and her mother and Cincinnati return to provide alibis for the night he died, no one is more surprised than Josie. But that alibi comes with a price and when her mother skips town again, payback falls on Josie's shoulders and Carlos Marcello is demanding payment in one week's time.
What a complicated life Josie Moraine leads. It almost makes your head spin and that means this book is unputdownable, right from the first sentence "My mother's a prostitute." I had had misgivings about Out of the Easy because Sepetys's first novel, Between Shades of Gray, had been so well written that I was afraid everything after that would be a let down, but not so here.
Once again Sepetys has created first-rate, well-defined female characters. The 1950s was not a time when women were told they could be whatever they wanted to be. Rather, the message was to conform. And even though Josie is a strong woman, who works hard to try to get what she wants, she has her faults. Determined not to be like her mother, she nevertheless finds herself making some bad judgements, some poor decisions and spinning a web of lies that get easier and easier to tell until it looks almost like Josie might be forced to conform to her mother's fate.
Sepeteys's male characters don't feel as well defined but perhaps that is because the story is told in the first person by Josie and the reader only gets to see them from her point of view, which is always limiting. We only know what Josie tells us about them and not what is going on inside their heads. They are there basically to move her story along.
All in all, this is an excellent historical fiction novel, one that gives us an interesting picture of the underbelly of life in the Big Easy. It doesn't pack the punch that Between Shades of Gray did, but I don't think it will be a disappointment. It's just different, and not all stories are punch-packers. And you might think the ending is a little too pat, I know I did, but then I felt guilty thinking maybe Josie deserved a break for once. Then I remembered, life doesn't really do that and there is really no such thing as a pat ending.
Although some of Out of the Easy takes place in a brothel and there are a number of characters who are prostitutes, there is no real sex in this novel, just the implication of it. And really, the language is quite mild, all things considered.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was how Sepetys has again managed to make place an integral character in the novel. As Josie travels about the French Quarter, the reader gets a real sense of what it must have been like in 1950. New Orleans is one of my favorite places and after Hurricane Katrina, I was really afraid it would disappear the way some people predicted it would. But here, let Ruta Sepetys tell you all about it:
This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was borrowed from Webster Branch of the NYPL