Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

I remember reading "Between Shades of Grey" by Ruta Sepetys and being keenly affected by the poignant story of Lina, a girl who faces the chance of losing her family and friends during the Genocide of Baltic People. In fact, it inspired me to start writing my own historical fiction story! When I heard that "Out of the Easy" was being released last week, I knew I was in for an exciting adventure set in the past. I don't really know exactly how exciting that adventure was, but it was an adventure nonetheless.

It's 1950 in New Orleans, and while the French Quarter is simmering with secrets, seventeen-year old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Infamously known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer, to go to college and escape from the wild cage of New Orleans. She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her own principles, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. With the stakes even higher than before, Josie is caught between her dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld...and the truth behind the Big Easy.

One of the greatest things about reading historical fiction is that it transports you to a whole other world, one that actually existed, for a moment, in our past. To me, New Orleans in 1950 was exciting, raucous and full of adventure and mystery, and I think Ms. Sepetys did a wonderful job of bringing the French Quarter to life. But the real thing that really makes the setting is the people. They're vibrant and bubbling, full of life and joie de vivre. At the same time, though, they're just normal people, just like us. They live normal lives of running bookstores and driving cabs, and this is what makes the human emotions that are so central to the novel all the more poignant and relatable. It also renders the experiences of living in New Orleans at that time more realistic, so we can clearly imagine living in such a time and place even if it was more than half a century ago.

Which, of course, brings me to the characters. Josie is ambitious, clever and undeniably strong at heart. Yeah, she's had a rough childhood, but she's learned to pick herself up, dust herself off, and keep working towards her dreams. She's a pleasant character to follow throughout the novel, but what really makes her a protagonist is the unconditional support she has of her friends. There's sweet, loyal Cokie, who's taken care of Josie ever since she was a child, and Patrick, her best friend who, despite being charming and friendly, harbours his own secret. There's also Jesse, the leather-clad motorcyclist who has all the girls swooning over him, but only really has eyes for Josie. And, of course, there's Willie and the prostitutes at her house on Conti Street. They, almost more than anyone, are like a real, tight-knit family, with Willie acting as the stepmother/fairy godmother figure whom everyone secretly adores. In the end, it was really the amazing cast of characters that made the story, and through them, Ms. Sepetys was able to convey those human emotions that are so crucial to her novels.

One thing that disappointed me a little was the storyline. When I read the synopsis, I'd been led to believe that there'd be some exciting mystery full of danger and adventure. Instead, the whole murder portion of the entire novel was watered down to a single murder that was introduced early on in the book and very lightly, sparingly handled as the plot progressed. In fact, when I got to the end of the book, I thought back to the events of the story and thought to myself, "So what exactly was the point of the plot?" I never felt real tension or a fast pace either, which is a little bit of a let-down considering the incredible setting of New Orleans, which has huge potential for some more danger and mystery.

All in all, "Out of the Easy" is a story filled with a vibrant cast of characters and an exciting, jubilant setting of 1950 New Orleans. Although the plot never really peaked to a climax, nor had real tensions or an end-point to it, the historical fiction is worth a read for its rendering of the human emotions that we encounter in our daily lives.

Rating: 4/5

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