“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.”
The pull of 1950′s New Orleans was too strong to resist, prompting me to add Out of the Easy to my must-be-read list after the summary was released. When the opportunity to read the novel in advance of its publication date presented itself, well, I’m not ashamed to own up to the speed with which I clicked on ‘request digital ARC.’ That was good on me, because I liked Out of the Easy a whole lot, and loved one Jesse Thierry even more than that.
I’ve encountered lousy mothers (and fathers) in YA literature before, but Josie’s mother takes the cake, a dubious honor that owes nothing to her chosen profession. Louise Moraine is abusive in every application of the word: her temper would snap and so would she, physically lashing out at Josie; she chose words that stung like a slap, accusing Josie time and again of ruining her life and the body Louise used to make her money; and she preyed on her daughter’s wilting trust, using observed knowledge of Josie’s habits to strip her of hope. But where Louise failed Josie, others stepped in to fill the void. These various relationships and the hand these unlikely people extended towards Josie helped her become the smart, practical and determined individual she was, and offered a reasonable and realistic balance to her mother. Rather than a character so downtrodden by her life’s experience she became unbearable to be around, Josie was someone to admire for her self-reliant spirit and backbone. Like any dynamic character, she made mistakes and questionable decisions, and experienced moments of doubt and weakness; all of that made me like her that much more.
On the whole, Sepetys created a cast of interesting, flawed individuals, and I liked several alongside Josie, but none hooked me so much as Jesse Thierry, who caught my attention from his introduction and held it wholly for the rest of the novel. His appeal was strong and vibrant, overcoming the limited time the reader spends in his company. More on that after this brief snippet, taken from my uncorrected eGalley.
“Okay, tired girl, let me tell you a secret.”
I didn’t need any more secrets. I had enough of my own. I looked up at Jesse.
“Uh-huh. There you are, all tired, standin’ in your boyfriend’s clothes, but here’s the secret.” Jesse moved in close. “You like me.”
“What?” I moved my face from his, trying to restrain what felt like a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. My body seemed to react involuntarily around Jesse. It made me nervous.
“Yep, when you were in trouble, you went running, but not for your boyfriend. You came runnin’ for me.” Jesse backed away slowly, smiling. “You like me, Josie Moraine. You just don’t know it yet.”
Jesse was right; Josie didn’t know it yet. So he gave her time to figure it out, no pressure applied or condition leveled. Don’t mistake me; his interest was always clear, even if Josie was initially blind to it. Quietly present for Josie in a way that defied her expectations of boys and men, he won me over hugely. Like, I’d read an entire novel about him building the Merc he mentions working on in this book and just talking. Oh, and before I move reluctantly on, though I suppose this could verge on spoiler territory…If you’re worried that there’s a love triangle, there’s really not. In spite of Jesse’s boyfriend comment.
My expectation was that the city of New Orleans – the landscape, the heat, the physical and figurative atmosphere – would be a larger than life character in the novel, and while it played a sizable role, it wasn’t what I expected. More is made of the distinction between rich, “Uptown” folks and those who lived in or around the Quarter, enmeshed in crime or in the shadow of the mob. In that way, the setting informed the plot, as Josie is trying to distance herself from one world to enter the other.
There’s so much to be said about this book that it feels like I’ve only scraped the surface, but the thing is, a lot of the threads, interesting as they were, took a backseat to Josie’s efforts to carve out her own identity, independent of her mother and the legacy the woman left her, and make a better life for herself. For readers who like character-driven stories about strong but still vulnerable heroines, there’s not a lot more you can ask of a novel than that.