So for my London book club, this month’s theme was historical fiction. The book chosen: Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist, a novel of scandal, violence, and unsettling personalities in prohibition-era New York City.
Set in 1924, the story is narrated by Rose, a self-described orphan who works as a typist for a local police station. Her days are much like her manners; neat and orderly. She describes herself as plain, but honest and hardworking, with strong morals to a fault (in my opinion).
Remember that women in this era had few jobs to aspire to: cook, hostess, receptionist, teacher, homemaker, nurse, retail assistant. No neurosurgeons or Justices of the Supreme Court here. Rose is an orphan, and scrapes and saves all her money for renting a shared room in a female boarding house that smells like beef stock.
Then Odalie steps into her life, and everything changes. From her daring bob hairstyle to her elegant and oh so expensive clothes, Odalie sweeps into the police station and charms the staff, earning a job as a fellow typist. Rose is at once intrigued and is befriended by Odalie.
We each have our daily routines. We wake up, go to school or work, maybe meet friends or family and go out socially. Perhaps we are aware of the other cultures that exist around us, hovering on the edges of our periphery. Which is why when Odalie brings Rose to a wig shop and says a certain catch-phrase, they are ushered into a speakeasy and a world of underground drinking, dancing, and jazz that changes Rose forever.
Imbibed with champagne, bathtub gin, and spirits imported from around the world Rose lives, breathes, and drinks Odalie’s Great Gatsby-era high-flying lifestyle. Their days may be spent typing, but at night they adorn themselves in fancy clothes and dance the night away to jazz in smoky gin-scented nightclubs.
All this time Rose cannot put her finger on Odalie’s identity. Always smiling on the arm of an admirer, yet offering different stories about her background, it is not until Odalie is recognised by a young man that her perfect life starts to go awry.
There are many similarities to the gorgeous beauty and surroundings described in the book and shown in the film The Great Gatsby. Readers will get the sense they can practically breathe in the champagne and hear the dancing of the Charleston from the girls’ t-strap shoes.
Odalie and Rose go on holiday, crashing at a rich family’s house in Newport, Rhode Island (where a whole other section of society lives). They enter a game of cat and mouse; a man recognises Odalie from somewhere, and won’t stop pestering them until he figures out who she is.
While Rose is uncomfortable, it is the reader who feels the sense of unease. Rose’s growing obsession and possessiveness of Odalie becomes increasingly disturbing, and we start to question our narrator’s mind.
Is Odalie who she says she is? Is she the daughter of Chicago prostitute, favoured by a madam and fleeing a brothel to seek a better life? Is she the fancied daddy’s girl of a Hungarian millionaire, content to carry on a Lolita-like relationship and travel the world with his money at her fingertips? Or is her backstory much closer to home? Rose begins to wonder, what is Odalie trying to escape from?
Elements in the book take a darker twist as Rose is pressured to take part in some questionable activities. She knows what she is doing is potentially dangerous, but what with her being so indebted to Odalie, how can she refuse?
I won’t ruin the ending for you. What with Odalie’s increasing paranoia, her not so subtle follower, and Rose’s disturbing personality traits, this makes for a tense read. There is a turning point at the end that makes you question everything you read thus far. It will make you want to read the story over again, and it will leave you thinking. That is the sign of a truly good book.
The Other Typist is also being made into a film starring Keira Knightley. Have a read and see who you think the real Odalie is.
Review by E.L. Johnson
Posted on 24/09/2015
by Sue Cawte