The Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition era have been all the rage lately. At the movies we've seen, for example, a remake of The Great Gatsby and on television we can watch the wonderful HBO show Boardwalk Empire.
In books, the focus has been on celebrated figures such as Zela and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Call Me Zelda, Z), Hemingway (The Paris Wife), and Louise Brooks (The Chaperone) as well as on the little-known, but all-to-true practice described in The Orphan Train. We met an unreliable narrator (The Other Typist) and a Midwest teen sent to New York to live with her uncle (The Diviners).
One of the newest additions to this group is Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress.
- What's the basis? Lawhorn started with one of the most sensational unsolved crimes of mid-twentieth-century New York. On August 6, 1930, Judge Joseph Crater stepped into a taxi and was never seen again. The story was big news, and the case was kept open for years after Crater's disappearance. It's possible that his body was found about ten years ago, but evidence is inconclusive, and his story remains a mystery. Every August 6, without fail, for thirty-eight years until her death, Crater's wife was seen in a bar having a shot of whiskey and toasting her missing husband with the words, "Good luck, Joe, wherever you are."
- What happens in the book? Focusing on Stella Crater (the wife), Maria Simon (the maid), and Sally Lou "Ritzi" Ritz (the mistress), Lawhorn imagines a possible scenario for the events leading up to that fateful night. The story is not told chronologically, and each woman has her say. The trick for the reader is to figure out who and what to believe. Some of the reveals are startling and some are more subtle, and the interweaving of the fictional characters, the real people, the facts, and the surmising makes for a great read.
- What I loved: I was unaware of the case that The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is based on, but once I started to get a feel for the judge and the people in his life, I couldn't stop reading. Lawhon includes great details about Tammany Hall, musical theater, the mob, and the way things were in a corrupt city. I liked the women and the way they worked a social system that offered few opportunities.
- The writing & plotting: I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll simply say that Lawhon's pacing, teasing, and construction were perfect. Although this is historical fiction, her sense for writing mystery is spot-on.
- Recommendation: Great for everyone. The novel defies easy classification, giving it a wide appeal. It's a fascinating and engaging story, and I encourage you to give it a go. Book clubs will find a ton to talk about, from the basic plot to women's issues.
- Audiobook: My full review of the audiobook will be published by AudioFile magazine, but I'll say here that you shouldn't miss Ann Marie Lee's performance (Random House Audio; 12 hr, 1 min). Really, you won't want to turn off your player until the story has been told.
Source: Print & audio: review (see review policy)
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