Book Review: Out Of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys
In New Orleans in 1950, being the daughter of a prostitute is a guarantee that you’ll never amount to much. But 17-year-old Josie Moraine intends to change her fate. Raised more by the tough-but-loving brothel madam Willie than by her own careless mother, Josie is whip-smart and determined. A hard worker, Josie cleans the brothel each morning, brings Willie all the miscellaneous objects she finds along the way, then works in a bookshop alongside handsome Patrick before retiring to her small bedroom upstairs in the store.
Josie sailed through school, mostly friendless due to constant mocking and disdain about her mother, and is saving up for a college education, even though she realizes that the odds of actually attending college are not in her favor. Meanwhile, Josie knows everyone in the French Quarter and everyone seems to know her.
When two strangers enter Josie’s world, her life suddenly changes as she realizes that people can see the good in her and treat her with respect and kindness. But as Josie sets new goals for herself and starts planning an escape, her old life seems to hold her more and more tightly, and no matter how she struggles, she keeps getting sucked back down into the dirt and squalor of life in the Quarter.
The plot of Out of the Easy follows Josie’s fight to claim a new life for herself, as she deals with a murder investigation, abandonment, threats, and betrayal, extortion, loss, illicit propositions, and the glimmer of a chance at love.
That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
This is definitely not your typical young adult novel. Josie does not live in a world of black-and-white morals, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions. She’s dealing with the life she was dealt, and she really does pretty well for herself. How many seventeen-year-olds could live on their own, make their own way, deal with corruption every day without succumbing to it, and still dream of a better life?
The essence of life in the Quarter is sharply painted through the author’s descriptions of the sights, the smells, the sounds. There’s a grittiness and joy amidst the decadence and dirt, and the people in Josie’s world know how to live their lives to the fullest. Along the way, we meet servants, prostitutes, “information men”, and johns, and most are well-developed characters in their own right, making Josie’s world feel very lived in and real. Madam Willie is especially memorable, if a bit stereotypical, as the sharp-tongued, sharp-nailed businesswoman who scolds Josie yet loves her dearly and makes sure her destiny does not lie within the walls of a whorehouse.
Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the writing style got in the way quite a bit. For me, it came down to the old writing advice of “show, don’t tell” — and I felt that there was just too much “telling” going on in Out of the Easy. The sentence structure throughout was repetitive, with declarative sentences telling events in line after line:
I took a deep breath and stepped back. I started humming. Charlie stopped bucking. I continued humming and once again picked the towel up off the floor. I walked behind Charlie… I applied pressure to his forehead… I heard the key in the lock…
Those are lines from a page chosen at random, but I can literally open to any page and find the same pattern of noun/verb, noun/verb, noun/verb throughout the entire book. And yet, despite the focus on action sentences, much of the action happens “off-screen” or is resolved within a page or two. We find out through other characters’ conversations about a key development with Josie’s mother; we are introduced to a major threat to Josie — and then see it easily resolved within a chapter. Something about the writing style just left me feeling unsatisfied — it felt more like reading a journal about a set of events rather than being allowed to enter a fictional world and be swept away by it.
And yet, there are some lovely smaller moments. Early on, Josie goes to a rich-people’s party Uptown, and notices a table filled with family photos in sterling frames:
I stared at the pictures. If someone meant something to you, you put their photo in a silver frame and displayed it, like these. I had never seen anything like it. Willie didn’t have any framed photos. Neither did Mother.
Toward the end of the story, it’s significant that Josie does at that point finally have a few cherished photos in frames of their own. It’s a small moment, one presented without much fuss, but it gives a hint at the power of the story and the writer’s ability to create emotions and impact out of a few low-key details.
Overall, I enjoyed Out of the Easy and have no hesitation about recommending it. Still, I felt that there was a certain momentum lacking in the story and in the depth of the characters. I found the setting unusual and interesting, and the characters are a memorable and flavorful bunch, but there was something in the writing that kept me at a distance from the heart of the story throughout the book — so that ultimately, although I was interested, I walked away feeling unsatisfied. I suppose I expected more; what I got was fine, but it just wasn’t as strong or as deep as I’d hoped.