Ruta Sepetys follows up her well-reviewed debut novel with OUT OF THE EASY, a story that's very different but no less captivating.
Ruta Sepetys's first novel, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, was one of the best-reviewed young adult novels of 2011. Based on her family's history in Lithuania, the novel offered a unique and harrowing glimpse into a part of the world unknown to many, if not most, American readers. Many people, myself included, wondered how Sepetys would follow up this surprising, singular work. Here, in OUT OF THE EASY, is the answer --- with a novel just as captivating and rich in character and place as her debut novel was, but very different in place and tone.
"Although it could be argued that OUT OF THE EASY lacks the moral urgency of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, its strong sense of place, its suspense, and its unforgettable heroine make for a novel as memorable and original as the Big Easy itself."
As the title suggests, OUT OF THE EASY is set in New Orleans, a New Orleans decades before Katrina. The year is 1950, and New Orleans's French Quarter is a mysterious, steamy, often corrupt neighborhood. And it's also what 17-year-old Josie Moraine calls home --- at least for the moment. Josie has lived in New Orleans since she moved from Detroit 10 years previously. We first meet seven-year-old Josie as her mother, a prostitute named Louise, interviews for a position at the brothel of Willie Woodley, the most infamous madam in New Orleans. Without missing a beat, young Josie not only talks back to Willie but also pours her a perfect drink --- and with that, she earns Willie's
lifelong respect and protection, both of which are pretty valuable commodities when your mother is a prostitute whose best customer is a notoriously violent mobster.
By the time she's 17, though, Josie wants nothing more than to get out of New Orleans. She's had to tolerate years of bullying and teasing from classmates who know what her mother does for a living. She lives alone in a tiny apartment above the bookstore where she works when she's not at her other job --- cleaning rooms at the brothel. She has good friends--- particularly Patrick, her co-worker and the son of the bookstore's owner --- but she's lonely and perpetually worried about her mom. More than anything, Josie wants to go to college far away, somewhere where no one knows her history, her family, or the fact that she was named after a famous madam.
When one of her bookstore customers --- a particularly kind and fatherly out-of-towner --- winds up dead just hours after visiting Josie's store, she finds herself drawn into the mystery of his death. Was it really a heart attack, as the police first conclude? Or might her mother be involved? Soon Josie finds herself at the center of a tangle of secrets, lies, and blackmail, unable to know whom to trust or where to hide.
OUT OF THE EASY is simultaneously suspenseful, thoughtful, and a lot of fun. Josie is a sympathetic and down-to-earth heroine; her matter-of-fact, unflappable attitude toward sex, in particular, is refreshing and consistently surprising. She's still the product of her time, however --- although Josie's seen practically everything, she still seems innocent in some ways compared with contemporary teens, eager to start a new life at the idyllic New England college campus of her dreams. Although it could be argued that OUT OF THE EASY lacks the moral urgency of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, its strong sense of place, its suspense, and its unforgettable heroine make for a novel as memorable and original as the Big Easy itself.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 20, 2012