Goodreads Newbery list - number 24. Here's the first line: "My mother's a prostitute." I was also miffed at myself for not looking more closely at the details while brainlessly ordering books for our school's elementary library. My loss, the high school library's gain. Grrrr..... to the person who put it on the list. Grrr... to my undetailed brain. Seventeen-year-old Josie has had more than her fair share of grrrr's... in life, fending for herself as her mom works as a prostitute and trying to take care of herself on her own. Neglected and homeless, Josie is helped by Charlie, a famous author in the community, who gives her food and a roof over her head. She works for him in his bookshop and cleans the brothel where her mom works to make a living. Rather than being tarnished and bitter by her upbringing she is surprisingly level-headed and morally upright. The brothel staff looks out for her and young and old men are interested in her for different reasons. While the story is well-written and the setting of the French Quarter in New Orleans vividly portrayed, I was bothered by the stereotypes and lack of authenticity regarding the plot's controversial topic of prostitution.
Josie wants to go to Smith College out east where no one will know that her mother is a whore and that Josie works for Madam Willie, owner of the biggest brothel in New Orleans. She's tired of being ostracized by classmates and pressured by male customers of the brothel who expect her to follow in her mother's footsteps.The bookstore gig is her second job where she manages the shop along with Charlie's son, Patrick, since Charlie has lost his mental capacity and can't take care of himself. They hide the fact from the world not wanting him to be put in a mental institution. One day at the bookstore a man comes in and inspires Josie to go after her out-of-state-college dream. When he winds up dead the next day a mystery unfolds that involves her mom and the mafia. Things don't go from bad to worse, they go into the gutter turning to sludge and pushing Josie into taking desperate measures to save those she cares about in her life.
The writing is terrific. The author knows how to write dialogue and use tension. The plot was unpredictable in many ways. I thought it was going to be a mystery. Then I thought a romance. Then I thought historical. It's more of a coming-of-age story than anything. Josie finds independence and strength within herself to strike out on her own. The mother is stereotyped as the dumb, insecure woman consumed by vanity and lacking in morals. Her mom is a thief, abusive, and a liar. Josie keeps wondering why she can't help loving her. The only reason is that she's her biological mother. The author doesn't show a side to the character that causes the reader to empathize with the mom. The book, "Turtle in Paradise," also has a mother who can't take care of herself much less a child. But I could see why the protagonist in that book loved her mother. She had some redeeming qualities that showed how broken and insecure she was as an adult causing an inability to take of herself and her daughter. That doesn't happen in this book and the mother comes across as one dimensional and stereotypical.
Charlie and Josie play a game where they guess the book genre a customer will ask for when they come into the shop. The literary references by the twosome add nice details to their relationship and shows that Josie is well read. This adds to the credibility that she will be able to get into a college. The subplot of two boys interested in her shows her as not being aware of herself as a physical attraction to the opposite sex. She seems strangely naive about the teenage boys interested in kissing her. In contrast, she can tell when men from the brothel are interested in paying her for sex and is outraged. This inconsistency didn't jive with the expected savviness of girl who'd grown up around prostitutes.
The woman presented as prostitutes come across as stereotypes like Josie's mom. Madam Willie is developed the most as a character who tries to protect Josie and give her the life she didn't have. The lawyer hints that Willie was abused as a child, but there isn't enough explanation to pull her out from the cliched smart, crotchety Madam. She never came alive for me. In a great scene where the two are blasting cans off a fence, I kept waiting to find out more about Willie's history, but it doesn't come. The prostitution is presented as horrible and Josie has a scarlet letter for associating with them. Older men treat her like a prostitute and actually want to be her customer, but book doesn't delve into economic factors or class structure that forced these women to choose their current careers. At least Josie's mom wanted to break out of it and go to Hollywood. However, she's presented as such a puppet she doesn't bring any depth to her character. I cringed at the stereotypical African American driver who loved the Madam's black Cadillac. He's a great character and looks out for Josie like no one else. I just wished it had been a different car type. .
Josie is a symbol of purity versus corruption that just doesn't quite work. Usually when innocence is contrasted with the uglier side of nature I find the topic infused with tension and the dynamic interesting. While Josie is presented well, the prostitution side was not and that's where the novel doesn't quite reach its potential or come together in a satisfying way for me. The ending with the money solving all Josie's problems watered down the message as well adding another brick to my dissatisfaction-over-certain-issues pile. I also would have liked Josie looking at other college options rather than solely focusing on an ivy-league school. People can break out of poverty without an ivy-league education. At least the resolution of her college pursuit is realistic. I think most young readers are not going to notice the stereotypes and will like the subplot that has a touch of romance. This is a page turner. Josie is tough and vulnerable and I was engaged with her character development. An entertaining read that made grrrr... at some story elements.