A friend of mine is repeatedly drawn to stories and novels with unreliable narrators, the kinds of books that keep readers constantly questioning what --- and whom --- they can trust. You'd better believe I'll be recommending that she pick up Suzanne Rindell's debut novel, THE OTHER TYPIST, whose narrator is both memorable and utterly impossible to pin down.
It's the 1920s, and Rose Baker is defying convention by working as a typist for a police precinct located on New York City's Lower East Side. Taking down shorthand during witness and suspect interrogation is hardly something one would consider "ladylike" work --- in fact, her (male) supervisors insist that one of Rose's colleagues stop performing this task once she becomes pregnant, lest the upsetting nature of the job compromise her unborn baby --- but it's work that Rose takes seriously and enjoys.
"THE OTHER TYPIST is an intriguing model of storytelling and a fascinating portrayal of the lies we tell ourselves and others."
That is, until a new typist --- a glamorous young woman named Odalie --- arrives on the job at the precinct. At first, Rose watches Odalie from afar, trying to determine if she is a threat to her position in the office. But eventually, her interest in Odalie overcomes her shyness, and she makes awkward overtures of friendship toward the other woman. Almost overnight, the two become fast friends. Rose has moved out of her cramped boarding house and into Odalie's luxurious hotel suite --- and into Odalie's very different sort of life.
Soon Rose is accompanying Odalie on late-night trips to speakeasies, on mysterious errands, and on vacations to stay at luxurious beach homes. Throughout, Rose's attitude toward Odalie alternates between devotion (bordering on infatuation or even obsession), suspicion and derision. Odalie is keeping secrets from Rose, and Rose is determined to know which version of Odalie's past counts as the truth. But as Rose narrates her complicated tale, the reader starts to wonder who's the one really keeping secrets, and who's the one playing fast and loose with the truth.
Rindell's accomplished debut shows a real facility with plotting and developing suspense. The reader gradually learns that Rose is narrating her story from an institution, potentially at the advice of her doctor (with whom she seems to have a particularly contentious relationship). But what happened to land her there? And can any word of what she's committing to paper be trusted? Rindell drops clues as to Rose's reliability all along, but that won't make the numerous twists and turns any less surprising to readers, who will eagerly turn the pages to see where, precisely, this complicated tale is heading.
And, of course, Rindell's novel is also suffused with the atmosphere of the 1920s, making it the perfect book to pick up right now while The Great Gatsby is making a splash in theaters. Gender politics, fashion, speakeasy culture, and glamorous flappers all play a role here; Rose's story is not defined by its times, but is informed by them. THE OTHER TYPIST is an intriguing model of storytelling and a fascinating portrayal of the lies we tell ourselves and others.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 31, 2013