In this Jazz Age–set novel, a young, working-class woman falls for the scion of a wealthy hotelier and pays a price.
In 1921 Kansas City, many things are changing. Prohibition, speak-easies, and bootlegging are in force; women newly have the vote; young women are bobbing their hair and shortening their hems, and their job opportunities are expanding beyond the garment factory and shop counter. Some things haven’t advanced, though: public accommodations are segregated by race, women make less money than men and are kept out of certain professions, and different rules exist for rich and poor people. Seventeen-year-old Virginia Mae “Jean” Ball had to drop out of school to look after her mother, who’s dying of tuberculosis (the book prefers the term “consumption,” which was old-fashioned even in the ’20s). Money is a pressing problem, so when the new, fancy Empire Hotel opens, Jean is delighted to land a job there as elevator girl. She soon gets the chance to meet interesting people, such as society ladies who work to improve social conditions. She also meets the dimpled, flirtatious Elden Whitcomb, the son of the man who owns the Empire and “half the town, they say.” Before long, they’re dating, and the couple runs into trouble: Jean gets pregnant, and Elden fails to make certain payoffs to protect the family’s speak-easy. To stay out of jail, Elden must agree to leave Jean and return to Wentworth Military Academy. The rules of society are against her, but Jean—with the help of other women and a final gift from Elden—makes a place in the world for herself and her daughter, Ella.
In her debut novel, Ward paints a vivid portrait of Kansas City in the Roaring ’20s, name-checking local landmarks such as Swope Park and Petticoat Lane. Her setting is a good choice, more original than Chicago or New York City. She also does a good job portraying the excitement and energy of that era, whether depicting pleasures such as speak-easies and bathtub gin or new, middle-class opportunities for women, including typing jobs. (She also highlights not-so-good opportunities for working-class women, such as taxi dancing.) Occasionally she strikes a wrong note, such as the aforementioned use of “consumption” and the much-too-modern phrase “Total vertical integration of the supply chain”; also, later on, it’s unclear how a typist suddenly has the skill set to edit a newspaper section. Furthermore, the conventional plot and characters lack the fresh modernity that characterized the 1920s. In the overused tradition of working-class-girl/rich-boy romance, Elden isn’t looking for someone sophisticated or sexy but for someone nice—supposedly a rare quality: “You’re like no other girl, Jean. So sweet and true.” That said, Elden’s ultimate fate does upset some expectations. It’s problematic, however, that the African-American characters exist mainly to cheerfully help the white ones, as when Jean’s doorman’s adult daughter Abby babysits Ella: “I like to watch that child. Feels almost like a favor to me.”
Well-done 1920s Kansas City atmosphere, but the romance lacks freshness.