American author Marie Rutkoski makes the transition from YA to adult fiction look simple in this hugely satisfying and emotionally fraught thriller about the broken lives caught up in the hunt for a missing dancer and her abductor in turn-of-the-century Illinois.
Each chapter in the novel is from the viewpoint of one of the characters caught up in the case, which centres around the Lovely Lady strip club in Fremont, just outside Chicago. The majority of the story is told by Samantha Lind (stage name Ruby) and Georgia (Gigi) as well as Victor Amador and Holly Meylin, the detectives working the case. However, there are contributions from other dancers and their family members – plus the killer.
It’s a successful ploy by the author which grounds the reader in a story with a broad cast of characters, and is an effective method of revealing personality and motivation, as seemingly innocent actions in one chapter are revealed to have a more sinister purpose when viewed from a different perspective. In this way, the author explores the themes of the novel, one of which is the inevitability of male violence in women’s lives. The very beginning of the story is a case in point as one customer tells Samantha during a dance that she is so pretty she makes him want to punch his wife in the mouth.
The dancers at the club might have a code that they don’t steal each others customers or money, but that’s as far as their sisterhood goes. Sex workers exist at the margins of society and their place at the club is fragile and easily lost, so Samantha is surprised to find herself taking a young dancer under her wing. When Jolene (Lady Jade) has her drink spiked with GBH, Samantha offers to drive her home before the club’s owner, Dale, finds her intoxicated and fires her. On the drive back, Samantha is forced off the road then abducted. Jolene is left dead near to the wreck, a crown having been carved into the sole of her foot. Detective Amador is first to the scene and identifies that a ‘pit-stop’ manoeuvre was used to crash the car, something which suggests the other driver may be police or ex-military.
Once Jolene is identified the investigation quickly focuses on the strip club. Georgia is persuaded by Detective Meylin to work as a confidential informant within the club and she will provide valuable leads to the detectives as they try to find Samantha. The identity of the killer isn’t revealed to the us until towards the end of the story, and Real Easy works well as a conventional mystery, but it is Rutkoski’s writing which elevates Real Easy above the pack.
The author manages to cram so much into its 300 pages and no word is wasted. I came to know these people intimately and to feel their fears and aspirations, whether it be the unacknowledged feelings between the detectives, both divorced; Jolene’s need to be accepted; or Georgia’s struggle with family members accepting her mixed heritage. I found myself thinking about the book and speculating on the outcome whilst away from it, and when the fate of one character was revealed I had to put the book down to take a minute. I really thought I might cry. Rutkoski manages the rare trick of balancing the heavier themes with a subtle optimism about the women’s ability to endure their difficulties with humour and love.
Reading Real Easy is an experience I know I am going to carry with me for some time, and I am grateful for it. I know its only January, and its easy to get carried away about a book I am so enthusiastic about, but I really expect it to be on many people’s year’s best lists.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars