Soph’s Library: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist had been on my To Read List since the start of the year, and once I bought it I found the months slipped by without it getting picked up, its glamorous cover taunting me from the shelves. And eventually, in October, I picked it up, and was immediately sucked into the heady world of 1920s New York. In an era characterised by flappers and speakeasies and Jay Gatsby, I found myself drawn into the addictive lives of Rose and Odalie.

The initial concept of the novel intrigued me. As typists, Rose and Odalie and other women like them could become part of a world that was almost exclusively male – a world of male detectives and the seedy criminal underworld. But for straight-laced Rose, the fine line between right and wrong begins to blur once the glamorous Odalie comes to work at the precinct.

I really liked how this book was written, especially for the darker element which is present throughout. I found that there was an undercurrent of menace running through the book, the sense of being balanced on a knife edge, waiting for something to go wrong.

This sense of danger, along with Rindell’s highly detailed writing, certainly helps to heighten the senses within the book. I found the descriptions wonderful – even thinking back now, as I write this in chilly December, I am transported away to a sticky, humid summer in New York. And the imagery is just as gorgeous. One of my favourite quotes from the book is perhaps one of my favourite quotes of all time:

“Trays of champagne glasses floated over waiters’ heads like golden clouds drifting in and out of formation.”

I know it’s probably lazy to make a comparison to The Great Gatsby, but I found that F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in a similarly beautiful way. Every sentence he writes is expertly crafted and a joy to read, and for another, modern, book to be found comparable seems to me more a compliment than a weakness.

The characters are an interesting bunch. Not one of them is straightforwardly “good” or “bad”, especially in the traditional sense of the words, and there is a lot of grey in the middle. Our storyteller, Rose, was an unreliable narrator with a peculiar edge to her personality which made it hard to warm to her. She was all at once jealous, possessive, manipulative, scheming and naive. I found her brilliant and frustrating by turns.

Odalie, too, was difficult to pin down. She was like a mirage – shimmering and glamorous and untouchable; always out of reach, and yet with that ability to capture a person’s trust and then lead them into peril.

It does take a long time for the crux of the matter to unwind, I grant you, and there are not quite enough clues beforehand for you to guess at the Big Reveal. But the overall denouement, the plot twist at the end, is a brilliant one. I didn’t see it coming and it did leave me slightly speechless. The whole execution of the book’s ending played very much like some kind of crime noir horror film, and you could easily imagine the final chapters as closing scenes before the credits rolled on a stunned audience.

I was intrigued, although not entirely surprised, to discover that Suzanne Rindell had previously lived above a funeral parlour whilst completing studies in 1920s literature. These two aspects merged quite fortuitously when Lindell found the obituary of a female typist who worked in a police precinct, and this inspired the creation of Rose Baker.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was that, at the back, were a list of questions which enable you to think about the book in greater depth, and which allowed me to get back into academic mode. I found that I have actually missed this level of appraisal and examination since leaving uni, even though I studied History rather than English Lit. Most of them are major spoilers, but this one is about the only one which isn’t:

“Why do you think Rose was so captivated by Odalie, someone she initially wholly disapproved of?”

For my part, my answer would be as follows:

Rose Baker is someone who has lived her life by a strict code of values, has been deprived of emotional connections with others and distances herself from hedonistic excess. This sparsity sits in such stark contrast to Odalie, who dresses in fashionably, thinks nothing of materialistic gestures, and is tactile and enigmatic with all who cross her path. In such circumstances, it is little wonder that Rose will be drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Odalie makes a life that has always been so out of reach to Rose seem accessible and tangible, and although Rose has taught herself to disapprove of such a lifestyle, her resolve can only hold out so long. Her personality appears addictive, and once she has an object to focus on, she will be drawn in with possessive zeal. With Odalie’s tacit encouragement of such behaviour, and the doors she opens up to Rose, it is practically inevitable that she finds herself obsessed with Odalie, who embodies everything that Rose is not and wishes she could be.

Definitely read this book. It is cleverly written, with a heady mix of glamour, danger and home-brewed cocktails, and it will catch hold of you and not let go.

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