The Wicked City is a delicious puzzle box of a book with handsome writing that gives a new look to stories set in the Jazz Age. Switching between 1920s New York and contemporary times, the book is peopled by a witty irreverent flapper, a tough Prohibition agent, a young innocent Princeton student, an accounting wizard, and a musician carpenter. The contemporary and historical storylines intersect at various points in the book as two smart, clever women journey through life discovering themselves and their romantic inclinations.
In present-day New York, Ella Hawthorne runs away from her Manhattan loft when she catches her husband cheating on her in the stairwell of their building. She feels as if a loud steam whistle is blowing inside her skull and doesn’t quite know what her next steps should be. In order to console her, her mother tells her that she has had a “starter marriage”:
“A first marriage, made for the wrong reasons, or because you didn’t have enough experience to judge the merchandise. Like a starter home or a starter car, you trade up afterwards.”
Ella moves into an apartment in Greenwich Village and away from her mother’s influence and advice. On her first trip to the basement to do laundry, she runs into Hector, a force field of tousled happiness and is taken aback to find herself attracted to a man for the first time since the end of her marriage.
Hector warns Ella to stay away from the basement after midnight when mysterious noises abound – laughter, clinking glasses, and jazz piano – a throwback to a speakeasy from the Roaring Twenties. Ella, naturally, is drawn to the basement.
Bit by bit, Hector brings some normalcy into her life, grounding her while at the same time, coaxing her to step out of her comfort zone and take brave new steps in claiming the life to which she is entitled. Ella finds herself absorbed by her twin fascinations: her accounting job, at which she’s very good, and Hector, whom she’s learning to understand. Her flapper great-aunt Julie, who frequented the speakeasy on Christopher Street in her heyday, gives Ella very good life advice:
“So you failed at something. You – what’s that word? You screwed up. The world keeps spinning. Try something new. Try someone new.”
In the Roaring Twenties, before embarking on her NYC adventure, Geneva Rose Kelly, as she is known in rural Western Maryland, lives with her mother, step-father, and assorted siblings. A long stint in a convent and a short stint in Bryn Mawr makes her a misfit in River Junction. One summer holiday, she’s raped by her step-father, and she runs away to the glamor of NYC to make a new life for herself there.
Geneva – or Gin, as she styles herself in New York – , works in a typing pool by day and goes clubbing at night in Greenwich Village to listen and dance to jazz music and to drink the forbidden gin. She rents a tiny room in a building above a club. This is the age of Prohibition and raids of speakeasies were common, but somehow, Christopher’s escapes being raided too often.
However, on one of those unexpected raids, Gin has a run in with a straitlaced Prohibition agent, Oliver Anson. He hauls her off to jail to dry her out, before having her summoned before him in the rundown tenements near the Chelsea docks. There he puts her entire life history before her and informs her that her step-father has built himself a huge fortune making and selling illegal liquor. He’s made himself the king of the East Coast and no one will say a word against him. Anson wants Duke Kelly caught, tried, and found guilty, but Gin refuses to get involved with either Anson or his quest to bring Kelly down.
In the meantime, Gin receives a summons to hurry home to River Junction because her mama is gravely ill. While her brother Johnnie wraps me in a hug that might turn a weaker mortal into a diamond, she has the expected run-ins with Duke that makes her want to leap out the window into the new-fallen snow.
When Duke offers her money in exchange for delivering small packages to people in NYC from time to time, she’s repelled at the thought of doing anything for him, but she tells him that she’ll think about it. And when she returns to town, she immediately calls Anson and tells him she will help him in his quest/job to bring down her step-father. And thus, begins her dangerous life of double-crossing Duke Kelly and trying not to fall in love with Anson.
For all that you laugh at Gin’s smart mouth and biting wit, your heart is in your throat for her and the choices she makes in her life. She takes life like she’s fighting a war with it, ever the antagonist, ever the impatient architect of her destiny.
In contrast, while Ella, too, has made tough choices and taken the bull by the horns, she’s more of an observer. She’d rather not jump into the deep end and then learn to swim like Gin. And like the meticulous accountant she is, she analyzes her decisions before, during, and after each step.
The main characters’ stories in the book reflect their personalities in the way the prose flows; one, sharp, witty, and clever, and the other, sweet, warm, and also clever.
In general, I’m leery of accents in books, because they’re usually done with a heavy hand, but not so in this novel. The Appalachian accent of rural Maryland is applied with care and subtlety and adds to the complexity of the characterization.
“How is you, Geneva Rose? I’m a-coming from Hagerstown. You here to see your mama?”
“I hope she ain’t took a turn for worse.”
“She has, I’m afraid.”
“They Lord. I’ll send something over.”
I cannot recommend The Wicked City highly enough. The novel moves between the storylines smartly and quickly with powerful cliff-hangers and the two women leap off the page with a clarity and strength of purpose that is rare in stories. The connections forged between them across the decades is a journey of discovery for the reader.
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Personal impression is subjective. What works for one person doesn’t always work for others, as we all know. However, when…
I found both romantic leads in this book to be over the top. And, still, I enjoyed their story. It’s…
That consoles me. I mean, the line of humor and taste is impossible to really draw for all, so I…
I do not believe–and I have read the book–that our reviewer was factually incorrect. The issue here is one of…
I appreciate your comments, I find their tone completely in line with the tone of the review itself, not an…