Book Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

11178225Out of the Easy
by Ruta Sepetys
February 13, 2013
Philomel Books
348 pages
Source: Around the World ARC Tours

Synopsis
It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.(Taken from Goodreads.)

My Take On It

Lately, I’m finding that with every work of historical fiction I read that I am growing to love this genre more and more. Why? Because it’s a window to another world, not a world of fantasy or of the paranormal, but a world, that for one moment in time, existed in our own. And Out of the Easy does what all good historical fiction should do: it teaches the reader while entertaining them at the same time. Are you a fan of historical fiction? No? Why not? Do you think history and historical fiction is boring and stuffy? Ha! Not the way Ruta Sepetys tells it.

You could say that Out of the Easy is a story about a poor girl, daughter of a prostitute, growing up in a brothel in New Orleans circa 1950. And yes, that is what this book is about if you want the skin and bones version. But really this book is about people. People living day to day just like the rest of us. The cast of characters in Out of the Easy is colorful to be sure, but they are just regular people. No one has super powers and no one saves the world. But you guys, the manner in which author Ruta Sepetys is able to take these ordinary folks and their everyday lives and turn them into something so much MORE, is truly astounding.

Josie, a Detroit native, came to New Orleans with her mother when she was just seven. The first chapter documents  the first time she meets Willie Woodley, the madam of one of the best known brothels in New Orleans. You see, Josie’s mom Louise has decided to cut her losses in Detroit and return to Willie’s to resume work as a prostitute. Josie is pretty no nonsense about all of this. Her mom is a whore (their words, not mine) and that’s that. Fast forward ten years and it’s 1950, and Josie, now seventeen, is working in an antiquarian bookstore and living in the small apartment above it. Josie has recently graduated high school (that’s right folks, this book is New Adult!) and dreams of attending college anywhere but in New Orleans. Josie has got to get out of the Big Easy.

“Hello, Josie” they’d say with half a smile, followed by a sigh and sometimes a shake of the head. They acted like they felt sorry for me, but as soon as they were ten steps away, I’d hear one of the words, along with my mother’s name. The wealthy whisper it and raise their eyebrows. Then they’d fake an expression of shock, like the word itself had crawled into their pants with a case of the clap.

That’s Josie. Clever, both book smart AND street smart, funny, and wanting more than what life has given her so far. In fact, she’s ambitious and motivated and not above minor (and not so minor) manipulations to achieve her goal. But there is so much more to Josie. She’s wise beyond her years but she is still so very young and naive. She’s loyal and loving, she’s courageous and fearful, and she is a survivor.

You might look at Josie’s story and think “Wow. That girl has had it rough.” Raised by a selfish, ignorant and abusive mother, never knowing who her father is, and basically forced into an adult world few of us will ever have to experience, it’s easy to see why she is a survivor. Had she not been, she would never have made it through. But as Out of the Easy continues, and we are introduced to the people in Josie’s life, it becomes just as clear that this girl, the daughter of a whore, has been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who not only love her and look after her, but BELIEVE in her. This is the magic of Out of the Easy. Meeting and getting to know all the amazing people in Josie’s life.

It’s all about the characters, you guys. And there are many of them. There is Patrick, the son of the bookstore owner who is Josie’s best friend and confidant, but harbors a secret. There’s Jesse, the leather clad, motorcycle riding, swoony boy that all the girls, both in the Quarter and Uptown, chase after (think the greasers in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, only hotter.) There are the prostitutes at Willie’s Conti Street bordello: Sweetie, Dora and Evangeline, all of whom shine in their own way.  There is Charlotte, the girl who attends Smith College, who becomes Josie’s idol.  There is the smarmy and shady Uptown banker, Mr. Lockwell who may hold the key to Josie’s getting out of New Orleans.  There is Cincinnati, Josie’s mother’s mobster boyfriend and there is Forrest L. Hearne, the businessman who wanders into the bookstore on New Year’s Eve and changes Josie’s life forever.

All of these characters, and a few others I haven’t mentioned, are incredible studies in human nature. And all are larger than life, even if the role they play in Out of The Easy is a small one. But there are two people in Out of the Easy that steal the show, and they’re the ones closest to Josie: Willie Woodley and Cokie Coquard.

The character of Willie Woodley is based on a real life woman known as the last madam of New Orleans, Norma Wallace. In fact Norma’s brothel, located at 1026 Conti Street is the residence that author Ruta Sepetys based Willie Woodley’s place of business on. Willie is shrewd, sharp, sarcastic, outspoken, and a damn smart business woman. She’s got politicians and law enforcement in her pocket and she runs a tight ship. Willie is brutally honest, she hold no punches, and she was someone I liked immediately. When I think of Willie I think of Bette Davis, smoking a cigarette and cutting some poor man to ribbons with just a simple look. When Willie is introduced in the first few pages of the book, it’s not clear what kind of relationship Josie will have with her. But as the story progresses, it’s apparent that Willie looks after Josie, in ways Louise never did. Josie nails it when she describes Willie as “The wicked stepmother with the fairy godmother heart.” She is a truly awesome character, one of the best I’ve read this year, and one that I will always remember.

If Willie’s the step mother to Josie, then Cokie, Willie’s quadroon driver, is the doting surrogate dad. Guys, Cokie Coquard makes my heart melt. Willie, who deep down is generous and loving, keeps it hidden on the inside. But Cokie loves Josie unconditionally and isn’t afraid to show it. Josie met Cokie on that first night in New Orleans when he drove her and her mother to Willie’s place and the two have been friends ever since. There is a lot to love about this character but here are a couple of examples. It’s Cokie’s wisdom:

“Let me tell you something ’bout these rich Uptown folk,” said Cokie. “They got everything that money can buy, their bank accounts are fat, but they ain’t happy. They ain’t ever gone be happy. You know why? They soul broke. And money can’t fix that, no sir.”

And his warmth:

 “Why you frettin’, Jo? You not sure?”

           I inhaled my tears in order to speak. “I’m sure I want to go, but I’m not sure it’s possible.
      Why would they accept me? And if they did, how would I pay for it? I don’t want to get my
      hopes up only to be disappointed. I’m always disappointed.”

         “Now don’t let fear keep you in New Orleans. Sometimes we set off down a road thinkin’ 
     we’re goin’ one place and we end up another. But that’s okay. The important thing is to start.
     I know you can do it. Come on, Josie girl, give those ol’ wings a try.” 

        “Willie doesn’t want me to.”

        “So what, you gonna stay here just so you can clean her house and run around with all the
     naked crazies in the Quarter? You got a bigger story than that.”

Cokie, above all, believes in Josie and knows she’s something special. There are so many moments in Out of the Easy where I just wanted to jump into the book and give him a giant hug.

Let’s move on to another aspect of Out of the Easy that one could argue is a character in it’s own right: the city of New Orleans. I’m lucky enough to live a short drive away from this charismatic city and although I never visited New Orleans during the 1950s, I can tell you that Ruta Sepetys does a awesome job bringing the city to life . We all know the voodoo storylines and the vampire storylines when it comes to NOLA. And those are all cool  things of which I’m certainly a fan. But what about the feel of everyday New Orleans? The feel of the French Quarter when compared to the Garden District or Uptown. The feel of the Mardi Gras season as seen from the locals, not the tourists. Or, just the feel of one the oldest city’s in the South in general. Ruta Sepetys did her homework and got it right.

The scent of Havana tobacco draped thick from the magnolia trees in the front yard. Ice cubes mingled and clinked against the sides of crystal tumblers. Patrick said hello to a group of men sitting on the veranda. I heard the pop of a champagne cork and laughter from inside.

Out of the Easy definitely has that lazy, laid back and sultry feel to it that is distinctly New Orleans, but is also an interesting study in the differences of class and socio-economic standing. We see it in Cokie’s quote above about being “soul broke” but there are other references to the differences between someone like Josie and someone like Charlotte, the girl Josie meets who is on break from the Smith College, one of the prestigious ‘Seven Sisters. ‘

Just last week I had stopped by the funeral of one of Cokie’s friends, a negro trumpet player maned Bix who lived in the Quarter. His family was so poor they’d put a plate on the chest of the corpse, and people dropped coins in to pay for the undertaker and the brass band procession.

and here:

I thought of the silver frames in Lockwell’s home and office. They displayed his history for everyone to see. Willie had hers hidden in the back of a drawer. My history and dreams were on a list in my desk and, now, buried in the back garden.

I love when a book takes a closer look at society’s “have’s vs. have not’s”, and even though it’s somewhat subtle in Out of the Easy, the undercurrent is still there.

I’ve talked about characters and I’ve talked about the setting but what about the story arc itself? It all comes down to this, the opening line from Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield.

 Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else…these pages must show.

What does it mean in less flowery terms? Decisions, they shape our destiny.  Yes, a murder mystery does play out in Out of the Easy, involving a man Josie only briefly met but who made a lasting impression on her nonetheless. But to me this book is all about Josie growing up and facing some tough choices. Even with the strong support system of friends that she has in place, in the end, Josie is the one who must decide, for she is the one who will have to live with those decisions afterwards.

I stared at my reflection in the broken mirror on my wall. The dress, gloves, shoes, makeup, hair–they looked pretty, but felt like a costume. I tilted my head. Was the mirror crooked, or was I?

I have to wrap this review up, it’s getting way too long, but you have to let me stop and rave about author Ruta Sepetys’ skillful writing. Her characterizations are top notch, her dialogue is authentic, but what I love most about her writing is actually twofold. I LOVE her dry humor. Whether it’s Willie’s deadpan remarks:

“I’ve got a business to run. Elmo’s bringing over a new bed frame. Dora broke her’s last night. That girl should be in a side show, not a whorehouse.”

or Patrick’s take on Southern ways in a conversation with Charlotte:

They drink like fish and ask the most probing questions.’

“Welcome to the South.” Patrick laughed.

or Josie’s sarcastic inner dialogue as she meets with an instructor from Loyola University:

“Patrick explained that your father is absent. What about your mother, dear?”

Mother? Oh, she’s in a dusty motel in California right now, cooling herself with a cold Schlitz in her cleavage. 

Ruta Sepetys is a natural when it comes to humorous dialogue. Which makes it even better when she also writes things like this:

If I poured all the lies I had told into the Mississippi, the river would rise and flood the city.

or

Charlie Marlowe never wrote horror, but somehow horror was writing Charlie Marlowe.

or

I wasn’t certain of anything anymore, except that New Orleans was a faithless friend and I wanted to leave her.

Yes, I’m most impressed with this writer and with this book, you guys. Out of the Easy is one of those books you read and after it is finished you feel like you have experienced something really amazing. It’s a book with a lot of heart, just like all the characters that Septey’s showcases within it’s pages.  I know Ruta Septeys gained a lot of fans when she wrote Between Shades of Gray, but I believe she’s going to keep them and make even more with her latest, Out of the Easy. I can say it’s one of my favorite books of the year so far. It doesn’t release until February 13, but if I were you, I’d go ahead and pre-order this one NOW.

Cover Thoughts

It’s been a while since I spoke about a book’s cover but I have to say something about this. It is ABSOLUTELY pitch perfect in regards to this story. LOVE. IT.