In an interview about her new book, Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys describes an object that sent her on a wild and wonderful chase. She received a pair of vintage opera glasses as a birthday present. Still in its original case, the glasses were bought from a New Orleans jeweler, and engraved with the words from her friend Willie Robert. Sepetys is madly in love with history (her brilliant debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, is a very intimate look at a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl's experiences in one of Stalin's labor camps) and so she hired a researcher to try to find more information about the glasses. Willie, it turns out, was a brothel owner from the French Quarter in New Orleans. Sepetys even learned that the jeweler who sold the glasses ended up poisoned to death after eating a dozen oysters in the Quarter. As Sepetys says in the interview, "My fascination with New Orleans was born."
Sepetys' love and respect for history shines throughout Out of the Easy. The seventeen-year old protagonist, Josie Moraine, cleans up after raucous nights at a brothel on New Orleans' Conti Street, where her mother turns tricks. Jo lives in a one-room attic studio above a bookstore where she also works. Jo becomes obsessed with a kind stranger who is murdered in the French Quarter and as she searches for information about him she learns more than she ever wanted to know. Intertwined with this search is Jo's equally obsessive desire to escape New Orleans so she can attend college. I won't delve much deeper into the plot of Out of the Easy here. It twists and turns and has too many mystery elements within it that I don't want to spoil.
Sepetys makes 1950s New Orleans come alive. Here is a bit from an early chapter, when Jo walks from the brothel to the bookstore:
"I used E. M. Forster to wave the smell of moldy oak away from my face as I stepped quickly across the wet flagstones. If the Quarter smelled this bad in cool weather, it would reek this spring and be simply rancid by summer. I made my way up Toulouse toward Royal and heard Blind Otis singing the blues, stamping his foot and sliding a dull butter knife across his steel strings."
Evocative, precise, and oh so visceral.
My senses were awakened with every page I turned. Sepetys has an amazing sense of pace; she adds just the right amount of historical detail to her fast-paced, suspenseful plot. Sepetys also shows her protagonist's emotional development in believable, economical increments, making me care about Jo as she plotted and sometimes struggled to take control of her life.
Jo is a literary girl with serious street smarts and wants to make something of her life. She has a plan to leave New Orleans, "The Big Easy," (hence the book's name) and as she slowly follows it, dealing with spontaneous detours along the way, it is hard not to fall in love with Jo, and all the characters in her life. There's Willie of the vintage opera glasses fame who is the madam of the brothel and more like a mother to Jo than her own mother is. Then there's Cokie, Willie's driver, who is like a father to Jo. There's also Patrick, whose father owns the bookstore and who works side by side with Jo, and Jesse, a flower seller and car mechanic whose street-smarts rival Jo's.
Here is Cokie explaining the difference between rich and rich:
"...And money can't fix [everything], no sir. My friend Bix was poor. Lord, he had to blow that trumpet ten hours a day just to put a little taste in the pot. Died poor, too. You saw him, Jo, with that plate on his chest. But that man wasn't soul broke."
None of the characters Sepetys has created is "soul broke." Each is brimming with the grit and bits of real life, making their livings as best they can, living their lives as full as they can too.
Just like Ruta Sepetys breathed life into that pair of opera glasses, she breathes life into her characters, and their story. She is so incredibly skilled at building a bridge from the present to the past that it is impossible to not join her in that love while reading Out of the Easy; impossible not to stand by Jo's side and root for her as she gives "those ol' wings a try."
Recommended for teen readers 14 and up and adults.
Author Ruta Sepetys describes the inspiration behind her book and how New Orleans fired up her imagination in the beautiful video below:
This review was originally published in March 2013, and has been updated for the March 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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