At the top of the Empire State Building on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Frances. It only took a few chapters and I was with her wholeheartedly – she simply feels so real. The narrative bounces back and forth from the top of the Empire State Building, all the way back to Frances leaving rural Kansas, but it is always Frances’s point of view we follow. As a poor girl in a thin dress and broken sandals she is noticed by a couple of bohemian types on the train, a photographer and journalist. They are looking for stories and characters that will appeal to a wealthy NYC elite, and poverty stricken farmers are making headlines as the Depression bites. They see something in Frances and want to photograph her, but she is meeting her brother at the station so she takes their card instead. We see her settled into Stan’s tenement flat, taking embroidery in for Mrs Bianchi next door. How does she go from this to contemplating an act of violence at the Empire State?
What we’re seeing is an awakening. It’s not so much a loss of innocence – I realise that went a long time ago when she relates the things she’s seen and suffered. In NYC, although she’ll still experience trauma, she also gains so much strength and self-knowledge. There’s an awakening that’s sensual as she learns to love the feel of fine fabrics on her skin and the joy of moving her body to music. She gains a love and understanding of art, responding emotionally to the most complex modern pieces as well as the photographs she takes with new friend Agnes. There’s also an awakening of sexual desire, something she has never experienced before.
The structure brings an amazing tension to the novel. We might think we’ve worked out what is going on, but it’s so much worse than I imagined. We are drip fed the events leading up to the present moment, and the author doesn’t reveal the man Frances and Agnes have lured to the building until right at the very end. The girls become friends before realising they are both affected by the ambitious men who will build this city. Women are disappearing and men have all of the power in this world. It is the resulting male privilege, such arrogance and certainty, that lures their victim to this precarious and windy place. Agnes and Frances are going to draw a line under this, a fatal one. It really chills to the bone when we find out the true extent of what these ‘disappeared’ women have gone through. Within this we also learn the reality of the Depression in Kansas, and the reality of Frances’s life with a brutal father, only curbed by the presence of Stan. I was so deeply sad for Frances. Dicky and Jacks constantly talk about Frances being wise beyond her years, with surprise. It’s no wonder, she’s been through so much.
This book really is an incredible debut with brilliant historical detail and decadent 1920s feel. The gap between the rural areas of the US and and up and coming city like NYC is wide, but we also see the massive poverty gap between NYC neighbourhoods from the Upper East Side into East Harlem. There’s a decadence here that’s evident from the parties at Jacks and Dicky’s home. These people are new money and the mix of bohemian artists, showgirls, businessmen and politicians is rife with exploitation. I was suspecting everyone of ulterior motives, wondering if anyone is untouched by the taint of money and debauchery. The wholesome and motherly Italian lady Mrs Bianchi gives an impassioned speech about leaving her homeland, only for her sons to be drunk and brawling every weekend. There’s a sense that the pinnacle of this age has been reached; this lifestyle cannot be maintained forever. By the closing chapters I was willing Frances to escape this terrible place, not unscathed of course, but at least alive and free to pursue some happiness with the person she loves. Once I’d finished, I found it hard to start a new book, because my head was firmly in NYC. My heart was still with Frances and that is always the sign of a great book.