Ruta Sepetys wrote one of the most beautiful, haunting – and unfortunately named — books of 2011, Between Shades of Gray
, so I was incredibly excited to find her follow-up on NetGalley.
In her second novel, Sepetys moves about as far away from her debut as you can imagine, going from the harsh Siberian work camps of WWII to a New Orleans brothel in the 1950s. The story follows Josie, the teenage daughter of a prostitute whose only dream is to get out The Big Easy and into Smith College. Josie spends the summer of her 18th birthday cleaning the brothel and working at a bookstore in the French Quarter. Her mother, Louise, is tangled up with a dangerous man named Cincinnati, who may or may not work for a mobster. Louise and Cincinnati strike out for California suspiciously soon after a wealthy man from Memphis is murdered at a nightclub in town. Josie's only connection to the man is that he bought two books from her shortly before his death, but she feels drawn to the case after she discovers his watch at the brothel.
I ultimately found the book rather underwhelming. It wasn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and Sepetys is a perfectly fine writer--I just wasn't blown away. Most of the characters never grew beyond cliche or caricature and because of that I often had trouble buying into the reasoning behind their actions. Take for example, the love triangle. For much of the story, Josie is romantically drawn to both Patrick, her bookstore coworker and longtime confidant, and Jesse, the town badboy who knows what it's like to be looked down upon. I never truly got a sense of Jesse as a person and couldn't understand why Josie was drawn to him or why his presence in the story was really needed.
Then there was the fact that, even with my lack of personal experience in this area, I couldn't shake how vanilla this whorehouse seemed. I know it was a teen book but if you're gonna take on a seedy underbelly I don't think you should sugarcoat it. It's not that I wanted Sepetys to get into the nitty-gritty of the whores and the johns; I don't need to know how Sweety's pillowcase got torn. The problem was that I never really felt like Josie was at all that much of a disadvantage (apart from being broke -- and that could've been a factor in the story without the prostitutes). It seemed to me that all the people in her life knew that she wasn't like her mother, that she was a smart girl who was capable of bigger and better things.
These two complaints are both embodied in the madam of the brothel, Willie. When we first meet Willie, she's snarling at the fact that she doesn't like kids. Josie is just seven when her mother brings her to the brothel, but Willie is open to giving Louise a second chance. She's often talked about as a cranky, harsh, demanding woman but she's more often shown being kind and protective of Josie. Willie's the only one who attends Josie's graduation, she buys Josie and expensive birthday gift, and offers her shelter when nefarious characters want to hurt her. And yet, she discourages Josie from aspiring to Massachusetts and Smith. It felt to me less like Willie was a complex, multidimensional character than Sepetys couldn't decide how she wanted Willie to be.
That inconsistency, in turn, left me feeling like there wasn't a whole lot of tension in the story. The prologue gave me the impression that Willie would be a source of conflict, but she never lived up to that once the story got going. And the rest of the dramatic elements - the murder mystery, the blackmailing, the dementia-stricken writer - never gave me a sense that there was anything at stake. It was just events happening, not events building to something.
I feel like I'm being really harsh on this book, given that I really didn't dislike it. I consider myself a fan of Sepetys and am looking forward to her next book; I just got to the end of Out of the Easy
and felt, "Meh."