The Other Typist
- Suzanne Rindell
- Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Mary Baroch
- June 13, 2013
A prudish typist in Prohibition-Era New York falls under the spell of her enticing coworker.
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is a psychological thriller set in Prohibition-Era New York City, where we journey through a seedy underground of speakeasies, bootleg alcohol production and police corruption, thinly guised by sparkling temptations of champagne, diamonds and silk, ending with a shattering psychological twist and a sinister flourish.
The self-described “prudish” and “plain” narrator, Rose, is an orphan raised by sensible nuns, and makes her living typing confessions at a police precinct. She prides herself on her typing speed and accuracy, as well as her sharp observations of human nature. While Rose claims to have come from humble beginnings, she is harshly unforgiving of almost anyone she comes into contact with: the precinct’s bootleggers and murderers, her “fleshy,” preening boarding-house roommate, and her fellow plain and lowly female typists. Rose’s ruthless judgments seem to stem from her growing up under the austere tutelage of the nuns, yet as we delve deeper into her account, we suspect our narrator may not be revealing her true self.
Caught in a downpour with the mysterious and glamorous Odalie Lazare, the precinct’s newest typist, Rose, along with everyone else, falls under Odalie’s spell. Rose’s disapproval of Odalie’s flirty mannerisms and sloppy typing begins to disappear as she’s enticed by her new friend’s “electric charm,” “musical” laugh, and her fine clothing, as well as the scandalous rumors surrounding Odalie’s unknown background. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, Rose’s fascination with Odalie deepens, bordering on that of an obsessive and jealous lover. And when Rose is faced with acting out her own version of justice, our suspicions are confirmed that our narrator does not have the sound judgment she presents herself to possess.
We’re transported through each scene with Rindell’s colorful, detailed descriptions of decadent parties and fashion in 1920s New York as Rose becomes Odalie’s confidante, privy to her wild parties, slinky beaded dresses, expensive jewelry and loose morals. The stark contrast from Rose’s dim boarding house that smells of cooked stew to her sharing in the amenities — an endless supply of Parisian fashion magazines, French pastries, cigarettes and chocolate cordials — of Odalie’s plush hotel dizzies and entices us as much as Rose. Rindell treats us to vivid, lively scenes at speakeasies, where patrons enter through a wig shop and give a secret password to gain access, where tipsy women plunk out “Chopsticks” on the piano with their toes, and dwarf waiters pass trays of champagne flutes. Only while escaping New York to crash a society party in the Hamptons do Odalie and Rose’s high times start to unravel.
Rindell skillfully establishes suspense — instilling a sense of foreboding as Rose becomes more and more intoxicated by Odalie’s charms, ignoring the dangers of giving into illicit temptation. Rose inserts “meta” comments, which take us out of the narrative and frame it as her recollection, so that the story reads like a diary. The style encourages us to trust Rose — in this way the novel reminded me of a Prohibition-Era Gone Girl. Once Rose reveals she is under a doctor’s care while writing the diary, doubt deepens. And once Rose’s diary concludes, a disconcerting question is raised: “How did this diary fall into our hands?” I relished the image of Rose madly scribbling her own confessions when weeks prior she had been methodically typing the statements of criminals with the cool, unemotional keys of her typewriter.
Rindell’s style can become laborious at points, making me want to cross out superfluous descriptors to let the narrative flow. Each scene, whether describing casual conversation or conflict, becomes highly dramatic, with Rose’s interactions carrying a heightened tension as we feel her disdain or thrill. This expression of dialogue gives Rose and the other characters an almost stilted, movie-like diction, as if they were reading from a script. Perhaps Rindell meant to mimic a dated way of speaking or writing, but, despite its intent, the unnatural cadence repeatedly broke my narrative suspense.
The setting of the story is reminiscent of Amor Towles’ recently published novel, Rules of Civility, but with less refinement, common sense and more ... mania. The book employs a similar plot-twist technique used in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, yet the surprise ending in The Other Typist felt unsatisfying after the big reveal. To me it was unclear how the twist served to make the story resonate or how to feel about Rose and her rollercoaster relationship with Odalie. The novel forces a return to each conversation and scene to question its validity, leaving me skeptical and unsure of whom to trust. This also somewhat erases the impression made by Odalie’s sensuous, tangible presence.
While the high drama and dynamic, well-crafted settings and scenes make The Other Typist a lively page turner, at the end I felt very much like Rose, trying to decide if the novel itself is a confession or a profession of innocence — and frustrated that I was unable to come to this critical conclusion as the story ended.
Mary Baroch is a writer, editor and bookworm in Washington, D.C. She writes full-time for nonprofits large and small. Mary graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 with a B.A. in English and Media Studies.