A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

This was an odd book, though I did enjoy it. Monterey, CA in the 1850s. Eliza Ripple’s short and unhappy marriage is brought to an abrupt halt when her husband is shot in a bar brawl. Eliza takes up the oldest profession in the world, servicing 2-3 clients per evening at a nice brothel and finds her life more enjoyable than the one she had within the marriage her parents had arranged for her. She makes an interesting friend — a woman in a similar profession but aimed at ladies (was this a thing back then or a figment of the author’s imagination? I have no idea!). When the bodies of women — mostly prostitutes like themselves — turn up, they find local law enforcement (such as it is) uninterested, so they feel compelled to figure it out themselves.

This is more of a novel than a mystery, though obviously there is a mystery to be solved and our heroines are trying to solve it, both as a means of self-preservation and out of a sense of justice! Smiley does an excellent job of having Eliza describe her own life and feelings as she discovers them. Eliza is an unsophisticated person, having experienced very little in her life. She learns about geography and other places and foods from sailor clients; she reads the very few books she has access to, and her model of the world expands to encompass what she reads; she becomes observant of people — men in particular — learning what makes them tick and how to take care with assumptions. It’s quite difficult to create a character that has so little education in the ways of the world — removing everything you know in your own brain is so much more difficult than learning something new — and Smiley pulled this off well.

I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of a small town brothel is, but I liked the straightforward and utterly non-judgmental depiction. I’ve never understood why prostitution — which services a basic biological need — is so vilified even today in our society. I think we would all be much happier if prostitution were both legal and free of stigma for both the providers and the clients!

A little slow paced and with more (albeit well done) descriptions (of nature, weather, the state of the streets, facial characteristics, clothing, etc.) for my taste, I nevertheless found myself continuing to think about the life that was presented — an effective vehicle for putting myself in another person’s very different shoes.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 6th, 2022.