Josie Moraine is the daughter of a brothel prostitute in 1950 New Orleans. She’s smart, pretty, resourceful, and desperate to escape her seedy life in Louisiana. She has many friends on the underside of society, including Willie, the madame of the house where her mother works, and Patrick, the boy whose father, Charlie, owns the bookstore where she is employed. Josie lives in the attic apartment over the bookstore, as she has since she was eleven years old and had to get away from her mother’s influence.
Also known to her are the dangerous men in the Old Quarter: Marcello, the mob boss, and Cincinnati, her mother’s “boyfriend,” who repeatedly threatens her life. When society girl Charlotte comes into the bookshop and invites Josie and Patrick to her uncle’s house for a party, Josie begins to dream of joining Charlotte at Smith College in Massachusetts, even though being admitted or paying the tuition seems like just a dream. Life gets even more complicated when a wealthy man from Alabama, Forrest Hearne, buys books from her one afternoon and then winds up dead that evening, and Josie becomes entangled in a murder investigation. When she finds Hearne’s expensive watch under her mother’s bed, she hides it instead of turning it over to Willie immediately, as she should. Furthermore, Josie sees Charlotte’s uncle at Willie’s house and begins to blackmail him into writing her a letter of recommendation to Smith. The uncle is not easily cowed, however, and begins to demand more and more of Josie before he will write the letter.
Although Josie is intelligent and well-read, she has grown up in an environment that has taught her to lie and to use other people to one’s advantage, even though she knows in her heart that it is wrong. Her relationship with her mother, who has absolutely no redeeming qualities, is so complex as to be infuriating to the reader. We understand why anyone would instinctively protect one’s mother, but as Josie is seriously hurt by her again and again, we want to see Josie triumph in life, just once. The anguish in the novel is excruciating at times, as Josie gets herself into some terrifying situations, and the author does not sweeten them up for a minute.
Ruta Sepetys is the celebrated author of Between Shades of Gray, a novel about Stalin based on the lives of her grandparents from Lithuania. Between Shades of Gray made such an impression on me last year that I seriously believe it should be read by every teen and adult. We do not know nearly enough about Stalin, and Sepetys has a tale to tell.
Out of the Easy is different. First of all, I don’t see that it is a teen novel. Although Josie is seventeen and eighteen at the time, her environment and situation are very adult. There are descriptions of the inner workings of a brothel that were more than I wanted to think about, and a younger teen, especially, may not even understand what is implied. Most of the characters are adults; even Patrick and bad boy Jesse are in their early twenties. It is a coming-of-age story, but there are many adult novels with this theme.
All that being said, this was a very absorbing story of ambition, betrayal, and honor. Josie finds out who truly loves her and what in life is worth pursuing. All of the characters were richly portrayed, and the reader comes to care about so many of them and deeply despise others. The atmosphere of hot, humid New Orleans is a character in itself. At times, the tension is stretched like a wire, and Sepetys does not spare Josie the consequences of her decisions, nor does she soften the realities of underworld life. For adults and older teens, Josie’s dreams and struggles will stay with you for a long time. Out of the Easy will be published in February, 2013.
Usual disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this title, provided by the publisher. Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.