Available August 28, 2018
Ellis Reed wants to be a true journalist. He doesn’t count the work he does working for the Society pages as real reporting. He’s biding his time, but in 1931 he’s also not going to complain about having a job–any job–either. Besides, one of the perks of the job is using the newspaper’s camera to take photographs of the things that really speak to him, like the little boys holding a sign declaring that they’re for sale.
Lilly Palmer has enough going on in her life. She has a secret son, a job working for the most demanding newspaper chief in Philadelphia, and a long-term plan that requires her to keep her head down and her nose to the grindstone. But when she stumbles across Mr. Reed’s photo in the darkroom, she can’t shake the feeling that the world needs to see it. She turns it into the chief on a whim.
Ellis is thrilled for the chance to write his first feature story. However, the photo is the catalyst for a journey that neither he or Lilly could have predicted. In the world of prohibition and mafiosos, even an innocent photograph can be dangerous–for the kids in the picture most of all.
When I first opened this book, I had reservations. It started with a prologue that largely told me where the book was going. The prologue was in first person, but the rest of the book was in third person. I knew I had to finish because, quite frankly, I had committed to finishing it for the purposes of a review. So I bargained with myself. If I could read just a quarter of the book at a time, I could knock it out quickly without needing to force myself through long stretches. I read pretty fast, after all.
I ended up finishing the whole thing in a single sitting. Before I ever got to the twenty-five percent mark, I was enthralled.
The book moves. The pacing and tension pulled me along so that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next with each scene, but I didn’t feel emotionally worn out from it.
The characters were gorgeously flawed. While I rolled my eyes as the description of each of the main characters as essentially being mainstream beautiful, their characterizations were more interesting to me. Ellis isn’t just a reporter desperate for a story, he’s desperate to succeed because he has a chip on his shoulder and deep-rooted family issues. He has to prove his father wrong about him. He makes bad decisions based on past hurts and good decisions based on a sense of basic decency.
Lilly’s character is a great commentary on the way we treat single mothers in this country. She has a child from a failed relationship who lives with her parents and she has to visit on the weekends because she can’t work and care for her child at the same time. She hides her son from her coworkers because there is a stigma against being an unwed mother. She hides him from her boss because he doesn’t want to have employees who will be unreliable because of “family issues”. She desperately wants to make enough money to change her situation so her son can live with her full-time, but it is a struggle. Her decisions are based on intuition and instinct related to her experience as a single mother.
There are some parts of the plot that can seem a bit outlandish, but set in the days of Prohibition and the Great Depression when organized crime was in its heyday, there is also just enough plausibility to keep you hooked.
On the other side of the coin, there are some areas where the book didn’t score as highly with me. There is one POC character. She’s in two scenes. If I’m going to correct Regency writers, I’m going to do it to Prohibition writers too. There were a lot of missed opportunities to incorporate POC characters.
It also doesn’t portray mental illness in the best way. And that’s putting it mildly. If you are neurodivergent, just be aware that this may not be the best book for you.
Also, there is a scene where one of the main characters kisses someone while in a very serious relationship with someone else. That’s because the “someone else” is more of a plot device than a real character. The same can be said for Lilly’s son. You only meet him a few times and he’s more of a plot device than a character. So while the main characters are well developed, some of the lesser characters get a bit glossed over.
There are sprinkled in facts and descriptions to remind me of the 1930s setting, but the downside of this is that I needed to be reminded. To be truthful, I can’t put my finger on exactly why I wasn’t grounded in the time period setting, but I wasn’t. Your mileage may vary.
In the end, I liked the book both in spite of its flaws and because of its characters. I rooted for them even when I didn’t like what they were doing. So if Prohibition era fiction that features mobsters, corruption, mystery, and just a hint of romance sounds like your type of book, you’ll love this. It’s flawed but interesting.