Pub. Date: January 17, 2017
Source: finished hardcover via publisher (Thank you, William Morrow!)
Summary: When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.
In 1924, Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.
Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.
As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . .
Genre: Historical Fiction
Though I’ve long since finished the book, I haven’t been able to properly sort out my thoughts, pick through my feelings until now – and even as I sit here typing I’m finding it difficult to truly express what a wonderful book The Wicked City is. Beatriz Williams is an absolute gem and the more novels of hers I read, the more I come to realize the scope of her storytelling. Bit characters from previous novels are prominently featured while hints at upcoming novels (numerous years and books in the making) come full-circle and I can only imagine what a pleasure a binge-read of her novels would be! Such a richly detailed, highly scandalous family saga!
The Wicked City uses one of my favorite storytelling devices: the dual-era narrative and from the first page I was hooked. It’s 1998 and Ella has just received a shocking blow: she walks in on her husband having sex with a prostitute. Hurt, angry, and still not quite believing what she witnessed, Ella immediately moves out of their place and into a tiny apartment of her own. As she gets to know the other tenants (particularly the uber good-looking Hector who somehow managed to score the entire fifth floor for himself) Ella learns her new home on Christopher Street has a past of its own and that she should avoid the basement at night – back in the 20s it was a speakeasy and, to this day, wisps of laughter, glasses clinking, and a soulful piano can still be heard.
Gevena “Gin” Kelly is a firecracker. Though she hails from the tiny Appalachian town of River Junction, Maryland, her mama sent her off to a fancy college where she learned to replace her ain’ts with isn’ts. Gin’s been making a go of it on her own in New York, transforming into the perfect flapper, spending her nights at the Christopher Club with her charming Princeton boyfriend, and making some extra money by posing for rather salacious photos. All good things must come to an end, however, as the club is raided one night and Gin finds herself locked up. In order to go free, Gin grudgingly agrees to go along with Agent Anson’s operation. In the years she’s been gone, Gin’s stepdaddy amassed himself a pretty fortune with his bootlegging business. In fact, you’d be hardpressed to find anyone in River Junction who would have anything but the best to say about Duke Kelly. Anyone, that is, except Gin. There’s a reason she took off one day and never looked back.
Though The Wicked City tells two stories, the majority of the novel is spent with Gin and, honestly, I wasn’t complaining! Though I was invested in Ella’s story, I found myself utterly entranced by Gin’s Jazz-Age New York and the experience she went through back home. An abusive stepfather, the mystery as to who her biological father is, an upper crust Princeton boy on her arm, nights spent drinking illegal alcohol at a hidden club, Gin’s life was simply too intriguing and I wanted to know more. Sweet Billy thinks the world of his girl and wants to elope, but Gin’s newfound role in helping the devilishly handsome Agent Oliver Anson finally catch her notorious bootlegger stepfather has been making things complicated.
An urgent telegram is the only thing to bring Gin home: she loves her mother something fierce and can’t bear the thought of not being able to say good-bye, though she has no plans of spending a second longer than necessary in the company of Duke Kelly. Gin’s interactions with her brother and baby sister were lovely and I’m very interested to see where the story goes!
Although I loved this book and tore through it, the ending felt a bit rushed and purposefully vague in an attempt to set the tone for Cocoa Beach, due this July. Gin received a bundle of letters her mother kept – love letters from Gin’s father. I desperately wanted to see that story played out. Sadly it was abandoned – accidentally and intentionally I’m not sure, but I’m hoping for Gin’s story to be revisited in another book. The same with a box of buttons her mother kept. Ella discovers the box hidden underneath a floorboard and it seemed like it was going to be part of a larger story (particularly after they mysteriously disappeared one day) but, again, it’s an element of the novel that fizzled out.
I fell hard for Beatriz Williams back in 2015 after reading Along the Infinite Sea and am thrilled she has a new novel out (along with several backlist titles that are sure to please!) The Wicked City was enchanting and enthralling – I was hooked from the very first page and hated to see the end draw nearer. Though her novels are technically standalones, Beatriz offers a lot of backstory for her Schuyler sisters and I’m left wondering if a long-time fan wouldn’t be more appreciative of these details than a newcomer would be. Several abandoned or hushed-up plots had me frustrated, especially since I was so curious to see how they would play out! I’m hoping the explanation is that all will be revealed in Cocoa Beach. As it stands, I still highly recommend The Wicked City, though the loose threads left me wanting answers.