“What do you do with all this bank, Josie? Be a lot easier if you just lifted your skirt.”
“The only reason I’d lift my skirt is to pull out my pistol and plug you in the head.”
So. Turns out that I love Ruta Sepetys. I was pretty sure that I loved her after reading “Between Shades of Gray”, but now I am 100% certain. She has done it again. This one is, dare I say it, even better.
Seventeen year-old Josie Moraine lives and works in a bookshop in 1950 New Orleans’ French Quarter. She also works as a cleaner in the brothel that her mother works in. Josie has spent her life dreaming of another world, a world where she does not have to pick up the pieces of her unreliable mother’s escapades; where she is not known as the daughter of a prostitute. Josie wants to apply to go to college and see what else life has to offer, but the world she has always known seems to keep bringing her down.
I love that this book didn’t simplify a subject matter that it easily could have reduced to “books, good; prostitutes, bad”. The characters are brilliantly rendered, in particular Josie and her mother’s brothel madam, Willie, who acts as a sort of surrogate mother to Josie. Their relationship is full of warmth, albeit in an unconventional setting. It would be easy to write a brothel madam as somehow corrupt and at the beginning her character could go either way; however, Sepetys has instead created an incredibly complex character in Willie, who I ended up completely respecting.
Josie is smart and streetwise and heavily influenced by her upbringing, whilst wanting to break the cycle. I thought that the difficulties she faced really highlighted the struggles that some people do face to escape circumstance and poverty. How do you make something of yourself when you’re born to a mother who doesn’t care? How do you go on to do the opposite of what everyone expects? Can you be whoever you want, get to college, be a success, when the world you come from doesn’t recognise what that means? I loved that at the beginning Josie yearned to be a regular college girl from a normal family, but in the end she accepts that she can go to college and still be herself, that those two things are not mutually exclusive.
“Willie said normal was boring and that I should be grateful that I had a touch of spice. She said no one cared about boring people, and when they died, they were forgotten, like something that slips behind the dresser. Sometimes I wanted to slip behind the dresser. Being normal sounded perfectly wonderful.“
Josie’s predicament is claustrophobic at times and her continual let-downs at the hands of her mother are gut-wrenching. Josie is trying to find a better life but it feels, at times, like the whole world is against her. She makes some mistakes and makes some silly decisions, but ultimately, all she wanted was a mother who loved her and all she wants now is a better life.
There is one scene in particular that really stuck with me, where you really see what can drive women to become prostitutes and the attitudes men have towards them when they do. The kinds of poverty, gender politics, power-play and misogyny that is involved. It is profoundly shocking to me, still, despite the fact that is certainly not news, that such things did and still do happen to women all over the world.
The other characters are also brilliant. The storyline with Charlie and Patrick is absolutely heartbreaking and I really loved the way that Sepetys dealt with the love triangle storyline. I would have liked to have seen more of Jesse. I loved the bookshop and Josie’s room above it. There is also a cast of supporting characters who are either wonderfully kind or brilliantly horrid. And the ending. The ending! I don’t know what else I can say without spoiling anything. Read it, now!