EMPIRE GIRLS opens a window on the Roaring Twenties, a decade when Prohibition closed doors to legal alcohol but gave innovators the chance to provide those wanting it with an endless supply --- for a price.
The story begins in the small New York town of Forest Grove, where 22-year-old Rose Adams recalls her father’s death. One year older than her sister, Ivy, Rose sees herself as the more responsible and mature of the two. She willingly accepts running Adams House, their family homestead, following their mother’s passing, starting at the age of 15. She acknowledges the stark differences, both in appearance and personality, between her and Ivy, but looks upon Adams House as the legacy she well deserves.
"[T]he collaboration between Hayes and Nyhan is smooth and gives a clear picture of New York’s glitzy, intoxicating 1920s world."
Father is lighthearted with his wild child, Ivy, but serious with Rose, his cook and house manager. The tease this night is playful talk about the latest haircut, the hair-bobbing rage, and Ivy’s acting passion. The family’s solicitor, Mr. Lawrence, stops in after supper for a business conference with Father. Ivy performs a monologue from Romeo and Juliet before the men conduct their business in private. Mr. Lawrence is visibly enchanted by her practice. Before retiring, Everett Adams tells Rose of possible financial difficulties. He’s optimistic about his upcoming botany book but charges her with Ivy’s future care.
Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan alternate chapters of first-person narrative between the two sisters. When Ivy speaks in the second chapter, the reader feels her grief over Father’s abrupt death and her total sense of loss, but also her willingness to celebrate his passing with townspeople who pay respect to his funeral procession. Her reaction is in stark contrast to that of Rose, a somber, dignified manner. Mr. Lawrence meets with both girls after the service and has a dramatic revelation.
Prior to his death, Father had tried to reunite with his son, Asher, from an earlier marriage. His final written statement details that Asher, if located, would manage the Adams estate. Rose and Ivy, now penniless, set out for New York City with a two-fold purpose: to secure jobs to repay debts and purchase the house from Asher, and to locate their mysterious brother and reclaim him as family. A year-old photo shows him standing in front of Empire House, a New York boarding house for women. With Mr. Lawrence’s help, the two lock up the house and travel to New York, where they board at Empire House.
Ivy’s carefree attitude opens up avenues she will pursue to become a Broadway actress. She hopes that Asher will become a soul mate, a brother she had always wished for, with a romantic history. Meanwhile, Rose seeks Asher to settle their financial liabilities so she can return to the ordered life she covets.
Hayes and Nyhan exhibit a depth of understanding in portraying opposite personalities. The alternating chapters gradually unfold each girl’s multiple layers they use to isolate from hurt. Living in the attic room at Empire House, under the overly watchful eye of the owner/manager, Nell Neville, they settle in. Backyards close by offer evening social events, supplied with underground booze, cigarettes and music. Ivy quickly adapts to the lifestyle, her eyes wide to the glamour available in the big city. Rose, meanwhile, discovers a sewing machine left by a former mysterious tenant, Daisy. When Rose fashions a dress from discarded curtains, she feels ready to look for a job. Miss Nell appraises her talent and offers her a position at Empire House in exchange for her board.
EMPIRE GIRLS is a weekend read in paperback edition. In less than 300 pages, life changes come about with alarming speed. New relationships are formed, former ones develop, and character revelations impact the Adams sisters. Finding Asher remains the goal for both, and each new character introduced plays a pivotal role in that search. The plot rounds to a tidy ending, leaving main questions answered but finishes abruptly. Still, the collaboration between Hayes and Nyhan is smooth and gives a clear picture of New York’s glitzy, intoxicating 1920s world.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on June 13, 2014