Life in America in the early 1930s is hard for many, and one among their number is Nate Pederowski. A veteran of WWI, his dishonorable discharge left him down and out. With no money and no prospects, he shambles from place to place, looking for a way to get back on his feet. When an acquaintance suggests Nate put his musical background to work as a lounge singer, Nate can’t let his hopes get up any more than he could refuse to at least inquire.
Behind the rhinestone studded door into the Starlight Lounge, those whom society would deem “deviant” for any myriad of reasons can enjoy an illicit drink without fear or persecution. Owners and siblings Rick and Corinna provide all of them with a safe haven. When they meet Nate, they know they’ve found a sympathetic character and offer the singer a job without hesitation. Nate, however, has some scruples. All the side benefits of working at the club smell distinctly of “charity,” not to mention the instant attraction he feels towards Rick. After so many disappointments and downright back stabbings, Nate has to figure out if he can fit in at the Starlight Lounge and its misfit crew.
First of all, you have to give this author props for writing in the second person. Second person POV might be a huge turn off for some people and I have to admit, it’s so rare that it was somewhat jarring when I read the opening lines. By the same token, if it’s good enough for the likes of William Faulkner and Nathaniel Hawthorne, it’s probably good for you too. Plus, I enjoy reading books that have some kind of hook about them that sets them apart from other stories. Usually, I expect these hooks to come in the form of setting or characters or plot. By the end of the book, though, I was so accustomed to it, I forget entirely forgot any awkwardness of the POV.
Although the reader is thrown into the jazz era towards the end of prohibition and the onset of the Great Depression, there isn’t much that really anchors this story to the time period. I don’t mean that as a negative, just as a note that if you’re looking for super authentic, thoroughly researched exploration into the life and times at this juncture in American history, you won’t get it.
Through Nate’s eyes, we focus on the lives of the people working at the Starlight Lounge. In fact, before we learn just who Rick and Corinna are, nearly all the action centers on the budding relationship between Nate and Rick. It’s not quite instalove, but we pretty much skip over the awkward getting-to-know-you phase and jump right into the shagging-on-the-regular stage of their relationship. Of course, this fast-paced romance catches Nate a bit off guard. Sometimes, it’s nice to read something where two people just connect and don’t feel any need to question it. So, if you are really into stories where the characters build up a strong emotional connection through shared experiences followed by a slow-burn before ignition, this might not be the book for you. For me, I thought there was just enough justification for Nate/Rick so I was happy.
Moving on to the plot… The first half of this story comes out pretty straight forward–it’s just about a guy who lands a job as a lounge singer and falls for his boss. Then, the “family” comes in and, all things considered, this is a reasonably well-played device. With the story taking place in a period redolent with gangsters looking to cash out before the prohibition on alcohol ended, the family concept fits so well. So when a rival lounge owner pays a visit to the Starlight Lounge, the tension that snakes through the club is only to be expected. Naturally, my inner angst-monster hoped this no-good gangster would try to steal Nate away, forcing Rick to fight to get him back (thus proving to Nate once and for all that, regardless of his humble background, Rick wants him). The story, however, takes a delightfully and virtually unexpected turn into the mythological instead. When that theme is fully revealed, there are instant connections to some light foreshadowing earlier in the book–something I always enjoy.
For such a short work, I think Speedwell does a terrific job balancing the 1930s with a big slice of mythology.
I only thought there were two quasi-negatives. One: the characters’ development seems to hit “pause” once they act on their mutual attraction. I suppose this can be chalked up to both of them being infatuated with one another where nothing but the shininess of your new relationship really matters/registers. Two: the book doesn’t scream “re-read me!” Even with the foreshadowing thrown in, it’s concentrated on the two lovers. This isn’t a huge point because the story really is character driven, but without having more nods to both aspects of the story (the 30s and the mythology) peppered among the supporting characters, it makes the overall world building come across a bit weaker to me.
That said, this was a quick and fun read with a super twist artfully done. The relationship between the two MCs flows smoothly and helps bridge the gap between the two worlds in the book. If you’re looking for something to slip in between longer books, this is a great choice.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.