Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical, LGBT, Young Adult
Publication Date: March 7 2013
Hardcover/Paperback: 352 Pages
Out of the Easy is set against the vivid backdrop of 1950s New Orleans. Written by New York Times bestselling author Ruth Sepetys, this novel has something for everyone: love, mystery, murder, blackmail and warmth.
Josie Moraine wants out of The Big Easy – she needs more than New Orleans can offer. Known locally as a brothel prostitute’s daughter, she dreams of life at an elite college, far away from here.
But then a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie caught between her ambition and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans is luring Josie deeper in as she searches for the truth, and temptation beckons at every turn.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from the UK Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: I’ve been dying to read a Ruta Sepetys novel ever since the incredible success of her first novel. When I got this review copy I felt it was that time.
Warning: Out of the Easy is a historical novel set in New Orleans. In this review I refer to sex workers as “prostitutes” and “whores” just as in the book.
Warning: there are some spoilers in this review.
Ruta Septety’s Out of the Easy is the author’s sophomore novel after the highly acclaimed Between Shades of Grey. It’s a historical novel, set in the 50s in New Orleans, featuring teenager Josie Moraine whose first person morose, contemplative narrative is the book’s best feature alongside its historical framing.
The story follows Josie’s life in the French Quarter of New Orleans and her attempt to create a new life for herself, hopefully in a college over at the East, where nobody knows who she is. She is the daughter of a prostitute, and has suffered the stigma of prostitution her whole life: the whispers, the snickers, the pitying, the expectation she would turn up just like her mother follows wherever she goes. Even her name – Josie – is a prostitute’s name, her mother choosing it after a madam from her own youth.
Josie’s life is hard – working two jobs just to be able to maintain herself and to save money to go away to college. She is an assistant at a bookstore where she works with fellow booklover, friend and potential love interest Patrick. Patrick’s father Charlie is Josie’s father figure, supportive and friendly and whose declining mental health has been a great source of stress and sadness for Josie.
She is also a cleaner at one of New Orleans’ biggest brothels, the one belonging to Madam Willie, where her mother works. She is there every morning to clean up after the long hours of work and to work as an assistant to Willie. It also doesn’t help that her mother is a terrible person, an absent mother and a thief. To make things worse, a wealthy tourist gets killed after visiting Josie’s bookstore – and the mystery of this death might be linked to her mother’s recent activities.
This is the very basic summary of the book – the starting point for a story that intertwines different strands – all of which contributing to the main push to Josie’s departure from New Orleans.
There is something about Out of the Easy that made me incredibly uneasy – I have been thinking about why it was so since I finished reading it and I think it might have to do with the focus and frame of the story. There is a lot of disconnect between what the book tells me and what the story shows me.
It makes me uneasy that the stigma, prejudice and difficulty of prostitution is examined from the point of view of a character who is not a prostitute.
It makes me uneasy because of how this is framed. Please bear with me as I break down the main conflicting points:
The main character and narrator, is a prostitute’s daughter who works at a brothel as a cleaner. This brothel is one of the biggest ones in Nola and its madam a force to be reckoned with publicly and privately – the madam runs the brothel in a way that makes it a safe, healthy place for her girls, which is awesome. All the prostitutes there are portrayed as well-adjusted and moderately happy. You could also say they are all prostitutes with a heart of gold who have more of less have “adopted” the main character. In fact, the madam is Josie’s surrogate mother, friend, protector and confidant. Her actual mother is an Evil Whore and a Gold Digger. All of these women – apart from her mother – worry about Josie, want to protect her reputation and hope she will not become a prostitute – because they want better for her. Everybody thinks she is too good to be a prostitute and there is a great moment of tension in the novel where the main character is driven to almost become one because she needs money urgently but eventually she doesn’t do it and as such is shown as being morally superior.
So there is this clash between what the novel tells me (prostitution = not a good life; better not live it) and what it shows me (actual prostitutes in the novel = well-adjusted, moderately happy) and this clash could have been interesting as a complex portrayal of prostitution had it not been for the fact that this is only explored in a divided way – this is not a good life for JOSIE but hey, it is a good life for everybody else because what? They are suited to it? They are not as good as Josie? This is all the more obvious if one thinks at how there is a question of purity that is woven in the story. Although Josie is smart and capable of taking care of herself, she is also extremely naïve – but only when the text expected her to be. She barely registers the interest from her two suitors and when she kisses them, there is barely any focus on how she feels about it. But then she does immediately register when older men leer or touch her. She is squeaky clean in her connections to the people she might love but it’s almost as though sex is established as a bad thing and I don’t think this is actually addressed at all. And although I appreciate the fact that Josie as a character might think of sex as bad thing because of how she might connect it to prostitution, I would have wanted to see this actually explored in meaningful ways. This aspect is insidious, subtly presence in the narrative but definitely there.
I am asked to sympathise and understand the plight of someone who is not a prostitute at the same time that it shows me the prostitutes of the novel as living an almost glamorous life. There is social stigma and prejudice but only from the perspective of someone who is not an actual prostitute. I find this really troubling. I had hoped that the social stigma, sexism and patriarchy that is present in Josie’s life to have been examined in a wider context – how does it affect the people that actually live that life?
That said, it is very interesting that the main focus here is how Josie’s life is terrible because of said stigma. BUT even though she repeats that continuously, we see very little of her actual troubles with said stigma. Instead, what we do see is how she has this incredible support system in which the prostitutes, the madam, the madam’s employees, as well as a myriad of friends in the French Quarter and two love interests all love and protect her. All the time. Even the narrative is extremely supportive of Josie: in the end, the madam dies, leaving Josie well-off and therefore solving all of her immediate problems magically.
I also question how the problem of class is explored here – New Orleans is a setting rife for this exploration with the social and economic divides between those in the French Quarter and those Uptown. However, this clash, this difference, is explored only in superficial, stereotypical ways: the rich are only pretending to be happy with the books they don’t read and the pianos they don’t play. It’s all a façade that hides horrible people:
“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.”
Meanwhile, the lives of the bohemians, intellectuals, criminals in the French Quarter, despite all the difficulty, are much richer, authentic, better. I have no patience for this simplistic approach.
The book does do a good job at showing another side of prostitution and I appreciated how the prostitutes weren’t tragic figures. I do think there is merit to Josie’s story and experience as the daughter of a prostitute. I just feel it is disingenuous how this story was explored and I am afraid this overshadowed any and all the positives.
Basically, I really don’t know what this book is attempting to do here but I do feel that this story lacks honesty in the development of the story. In some ways it is a book that lacks nuance – you know, a few shades of grey would have done it tons of good.
Notable Quotes/Parts: In spite of my problems with the book I did think there beautifully written turns of phrases:
“Charlie Marlowe never wrote horror, but somehow horror was writing Charlie Marlowe.”
“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.”
Rating: No rate from me with this one!
Reading Next: The Three Loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds
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