Having just taken part in a collaborative novel, I’m quite interested to see how other people work together to produce joint works of fiction. Hayes and Nyhan take a character each and takes turns to tell the story of the Empire Girls.
Empire Girls refers to the residents of a boarding house in New York City in 1925, to which our heroines, Ivy and Rose, move after the death of their father. Rose is the eldest sister who took after her father and sister after their mother died. All she thinks she wants is a quiet life. Ivy, on the other hand, yearns for a life of adventure and fun.
The sisters are in NYC after their father leaves his house to a half-brother they didn’t know they had. They need to find him and make some kind of arrangement about their future. But the search leads them to more than they bargained for.
The novel is a light-hearted read which I devoured in one luxurious evening (a real treat when you’ve got children) (even more of a treat when accompanied by beer and a box of Milk Tray as I was…) and the two main characters are enjoyable enough companions. The city is evoked through the girls’ reactions to it rather than any specific detailing – so their comments of the bustle and the noise is all you have to get a sense of place. Nevertheless, the book is a sparkling portrait of a busy and exciting city, full of possibilities.
There’s also a colourful cast of supporting characters – the stern boarding house owner, the glamorous owner of a dress shop-cum-speakeasy who employs the girls, the chef, Jimmy the errand boy and even the little street girl who shares the attic room with Ivy and Rose. All of them combine as the girls search for their brother and as they do so they learn more about themselves, as you might expect.
This is a fun and charming read, with a slight mystery at heart, but it’s essentially the story of two sisters learning to live with each other. The voices are clear and I formed a strong picture of them both in my head as I read. Its weak points are perhaps that it doesn’t immerse you in the Twenties as much as you might expect – apart from the occasional mentions of Prohibition, it kind of felt like it could be set anytime. But it’s a minor quibble – this was written for entertainment, not accuracy. The girls’ experience of NYC is supposed to be a release from a stuffy world and so it is here.
I liked reading this joint effort, as well as the interview with the authors that came afterwards with insight on how they work. If you too can find a spare evening with a drink and chocolate (though in keeping with the spirit of the book it ought to be gin) then you’ll enjoy this.