This is 1950s New Orleans, the French Quarter. Jo’s life is a messy tangle she’s desperate to escape. She dreams of college, high society and of walking down the street unrecognized as the daughter of a local brothel, um, “servicer”. She’s separated herself from her mother as much as she can by living and working in a local second-hand bookshop, but when a visiting businessman is murdered Jo gets dragged deeper and deeper into the Quarter’s underworld, caught up in a web of secrets and lies and with the mob’s black hand on her door.
‘The Easy’ of the title refers to the Quarter and Ruta Sepetys conjures this world so effortlessly and evocatively that I could hear the music in the background, feel the history of the streets, and found myself reading in a southern accent. Then there’s the plethora of characters, all of whom are as gritty and vibrant and life-size as the city itself. There’re Patrick and Charlie who own the bookshop and who took Jo in when she needed to escape; Jo’s new friend Charlotte who takes Jo for who she is, no questions asked; the handsome Thierry boy; Cokie, Jo’s oldest and staunchest ally; Mother and the repulsive, scheming, untrustworthy Cincinatti; and, of course, Willie. It clearly pays to be on Willie’s good side and she seems to have Jo’s wellbeing at heart, but how trustworthy is she at the end of the day? If Jo has to cross her, what will happen then? What happens if Willie decides you owe her?
There is little that I can say without giving the storyline away, which weaves tighter and tighter, keeping readers right on the edge of their seats. Jo does her best to keep on the edge of things here in the Quarter – she maybe knows more than some people, but there’s plenty she’s managed to avoid over the years. But as the lies begin to pile up on her shoulders, she begins to wonder how on earth she’ll ever manage to crawl out from beneath them – in order to escape, will she have to sacrifice the one thing she swore she’d never do?
Out of the Easy was immensely enjoyable and so very different from much of what is on the shelves in the teenage section, focusing on Jo, the people and the city around her, her dreams and making it a book that is very much character driven but with a stonking great plot to boot. This does make it hard to categorise, though – I love that it doesn’t fall into ‘dystopia’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘John Green’ or ‘issues’ or ‘love story’, that it is label-free, but that makes it hard to describe to potential readers! And I think perhaps the publishers stumbled on this problem too as neither the cover design nor the blurb on the back of the book come anywhere close to giving an accurate picture of the book’s fabulous content (in fact, it didn’t capture my interest at all – I only read it in the first place because it’s being shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize).
If anything, I’d have to say that Out of the Easy most closely reminded me of The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. This is a very odd comparison because they are two very different books – different countries, different time, totally different storylines (there is definitely no supernatural activity in Out of the Easy) – yet somehow they left me feeling in a similar way. Perhaps a similar style of writing? I honestly don’t know. But, either way, I fully recommend Out of the Easy – if ever there was a dark horse of a book, it’s this one.