Ruta Sepetys burst onto the young adult scene in 2011. Her stunning debut novel, “Between Shades of Gray” (not to be confused with the OTHER “Shades of Grey” novel released that year), is set in Lithuania during the Holocaust. In her sophomore effort, “Out of the Easy,” Sepetys easily takes her readers to another place and time: New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1950, with another fierce protagonist who is fighting for her future.
Her new novel’s heroine, 17-year-old Josie Moraine, has had an undeniably hard life. Her mother, a prostitute in a prominent brothel, is a cruel and slightly unhinged woman who has neglected Josie for most of her life. The brothel’s formidable madam, Willie Woodley, has taken more interest in Josie’s upbringing than her own flesh and blood ever has.
Josie spends her days cleaning the brothel and working in a bookshop, and dreams of attending college somewhere far away from New Orleans, where her mother’s reputation won’t follow her. She is galvanized into acting on those dreams when a tourist is murdered in the French Quarter mere hours after striking up a conversation with Josie at the bookshop. Her strong sense of connection with the mysterious tourist, and her suspicion that her mother may be involved in his murder, lead her into scandal and lies that will either help her find the new life she longs for or crush her dreams of escaping once and for all.
One thing that struck me about this book was how vivid all of Sepetys’ characterizations were. I caught tantalizing glimpses into the lives of some of the supporting characters, and I felt as though Sepetys probably knew enough of their individual back stories that she could have written a novel about any one of them.
I particularly enjoyed Willie Woodley, the tough-as-nails madam with a heart of gold. If Sepetys ever decides to write a book about the experiences that led Willie to the point where her story intersects with Josie’s, I’d be first in line to read it.
I also loved Sepetys’ descriptions of the story’s setting. While there are certainly grander portrayals of New Orleans, Josie’s voice captured the earthiness of the city in a way that felt authentic.
I loved “Out of the Easy” for its exciting, vibrant cast of characters, its twisting plot and, most of all, its believable, likable heroine. I can’t wait to see where Ruta Sepetys’ next book takes me, and whom I’ll meet when I get there.
• Emily Ring works at Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.
• “Out of the Easy” by Ruta Sepetys was published in February by Philomel Books. It retails for $17.99.