Seventeen-year old Josie Moraine lives in the French Quarter in 1950, but this isn’t the New Orleans of tourists. Josie lives in the real New Orleans, where her mother works as a prostitute in a local brothel. Josie moved out of the brothel when she was just eleven years old, and has been living by herself in a small room on the second floor of a bookstore in the Quarter. She works in the bookstore and also as a maid at the brothel, going there early each morning to clear away the detritus of the night before.
Although Josie’s mother is horribly neglectful of her daughter, the brothel’s madam, Willie Woodley, has taken Josie under her wing and treats her like a daughter. Willie shares Josie’s dream that she will go to college next year, though Willie wants her to stay in New Orleans, and Josie wants to get as far away as possible. To do that, she needs money – a lot of it – and a plan. Josie has a lot of challenges to face, but things get even more complicated when she and her mother get entangled in a police investigation of a murder in the French Quarter. All she wants is to escape and be a part of respectable society, but New Orleans’ wealthy and powerful residents look down on her.
As with Lina in her first novel, Sepetys has created an endearing, real heroine in Josie. As a reader, I was rooting for her right from the first chapter. Josie loves books, has a fierce thirst for knowledge, and a fervent desire to escape the life she’s been trapped in. I got pulled into her story immediately and read the book very quickly, wanting to know if Josie would succeed in her quest. The action here is fast-paced and compelling.
The city of New Orleans – and especially the French Quarter – is like another character in this novel, and Sepetys does a wonderful job of bringing it to life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are also plenty of other fully formed characters here, both friends and foes of Josie. Obviously, the subject matter – with a brothel at the center of the story – may be a bit sensitive for younger readers. When I read the first sentence, “My mother’s a prostitute,” I realized my conservative aunt might not want me sharing this novel with my young cousin! Although there is nothing graphic here, the story does include both sex and violence, with Josie put in a very difficult and potentially devastating position at one point.
But for older teens, young adults, and adults, this is a wonderful novel with a strong sense of place and time about an intelligent and strong young woman trying to find a way to a better future for herself without giving up on her ideals. I loved every moment of it.