I’m always seduced by the characters in Williams’ novels, in this case Miss Geneva “Gin” Kelly, who in 1924 hangs out in the Christopher Club, a rundown Manhattan jazz haunt frequented by an odd assortment of “queers and poets and negros.” Gin is far from an Edwardian-era woman, more at ease in the thriving bustling New York of the Roaring Twenties than in her home of River Junction, a small town in Maryland where her stepfather, Duke Kelly
(“a cold-blooded bastard”), has recently made his fortune in illegal bootlegging.
A typist working
on the Lower East Side, Gin prides herself on being an independent working girl and has never felt the need to trundle back to River Junction like “some poor sucker.” Acerbic, world-weary Gin is unprepared for the arrival of handsome
revenue agent Oliver Anson, who asks her for help in catching Duke. A specialist who intercepts the illegal transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, the square-jawed Anson sees in “country girl” Gin the perfect vehicle for helping to bring Duke Kelly to justice.
Rebellious, hedonistic Gin is the glacial reverse of honest, dependable Anson, “a kind of honest to goodness knight” who promises to ride into River Junction and do away with Kelly--“the dastardly villain with the twirling mustache.”
In a world where the word “informer” carries the same ugly weight as “blasphemer,” Gin finds herself attracted Anson even.
She's still not ready to give up on young, garrulous Billy, who was introduced to her by her old friend Julie Schuyler. Up until now, Billy and Gin have been caught up in a whirlwind of love and promise. Billy echoes lofty dreams and youthful innocence. So does the younger Gin, who loved books and stories but was quick to run away when Duke tried to seduce her. For Gin, 1920s New York gives her dancing and luxury and boozing--and a dreamy duo, first Billy and later Oliver--as well as the carious acts of frivolity that cemented her reputation as the perfect party girl and now perhaps the perfect foil for Duke.
Not so for the other woman in the story. Living in Manhattan in 1998, Ella wsants, like
many thirty-somethings, a little more stability, a little more honesty, and hopefully a more secure marriage. Ella has been a bit naïve with little to no sense of who she really is. Everything changes when Ella’s marriage to Patrick suddenly falls apart. After catching Patrick having sex with a co-tenant on the stairwell of their expensive Soho loft, Ella finds herself out on her own, for the first time ready to wash her clothes in her dilapidated Greenwich Village apartment basement that's just a bit too seedy and too regressive.
Wronged and scorned, cheated upon but also technically married, Ella never once suspected that Patrick was doing anything other than working. Now she’s met lanky Hector, who lives in the apartment on the top floor and has set out to provide Ella with easy access to the basement washers. In the chilly stairwell, a new world speedily opens up before Ella, a world that causes her heart skip a beat. Staring at Hector’s “pert backside”
and admiring his “unemployed slacker hotness,” Ella can finally forget that in this unsought, altered landscape of her life, she has no husband to immunize her and “no one to keep her safe from the wolfhounds of New York City.”
From a number of hidden twists to a surprising plot point, Williams moves back and forth between Gin and Ella’s quirky voices, transforming what is essentially a love story into a unique tale of feminine independence and empowerment. Tying the rooms of Ella’s Christopher Street apartment to Gin’s beloved speakeasy, Williams
invites us to watch Gin hatch her plan with Oliver to return to River Junction, back into the orbit of Duke and her dying mother. Gin’s presence is not lost on Ella,
seeming to dominate this tale even in death. After the water pipes burst in her apartment, Ella detects something vibrant in the air, a ghost that lives inside the walls: “maybe it wasn’t the dread of the unknown of Hector’s strange warning about rats and noise from the bar.” As Gin falls for Oliver, she questions her passion for Billy. Ella courts earthy Hector, this exotic
twenty-something who is careful not to sexually badger her.
Williams’ New York, both in the 1920s and in the '90s, is presented to the reader like a fine jewel on a silver tray. Back in River Junction, Gin seems anxious for Anson to save the day.
Her stomach knots further as she, Oliver, and Billy are ensnared in Duke’s thirst for revenge. William’s lovely, conversational style is on full display, the descriptions of wintry Manhattan and chilly River Junction dramatic backdrops to the psychologically intimate worlds of her two resolute, determined heroines.