Review Of ‘Vixen’ by Jillian Larkin
Title: Vixen by Jillian Larkin
Random House: Delacorte Press, 421 pages, 2010.
Reviewed by: S.I.
Jillian Larkin’s Vixen is the first novel in The Flapper series, a young adult series set during the Roaring Twenties. The novel is akin to the Luxe and Bright Young Things series by Anna Godbersen, and though it’s Larkin’s debut, it’s smoother and more readable than many other debuts. Considering the rise of paranormals in the young adult market, Vixen gives the impression that Larkin has downright invented the wheel. Regardless of previous work, Vixen is, at the very least a fun scandalous, page-turner.
It’s 1923, and American women have just gotten the right to vote. Booze is illegal, but speakeasies are everywhere. Dresses are short, and hairstyles even shorter. There’s a flapper on every gangster’s arm, and the new music is terrifying old people. This is the Jazz Age. Three young women and the boys who chase them are at the centre of it all in Chicago. Schoolgirl Gloria Carmody dreams of being a fierce flapper, instead of a poor little rich girl about to marry Sebastian Grey, the high-society man of every girl’s dream. She’s been sneaking off to the Green Mill, Chicago’s hottest speakeasy. Her best friend, Lorraine Dyer, is hopelessly in love with Gloria’s other best friend, Marcus. Lorraine’s desperate, jealous scheming threatens to destroy Gloria’s plans of keeping her man and her double life as a flapper all at the same time. In breezes Clara Knowles, Gloria’s sweet-as-pie cousin, who is far more of a dangerous dame than she lets on.
The fun thing about Vixen is that each chapter is a glimpse into each girl’s head. Gloria is the de-facto leader of the entire outfit, and for the first half of Vixen, it is very hard to feel too sorry for her. She comes from one of the wealthiest families in the Windy City and attends the fanciest of private schools. Her biggest problem in life is that she is bored out of her mind and – gasp – about to be married off to an even wealthier version of herself. But the one luxury in life Gloria can’t afford is love. Even the best teenagers want to be bad and for 1920s Gloria, guzzling booze, wearing way too short skirts, chopping off her hair, and dancing the Charleston to scary music with men is shock to high society. Eventually, her new double life forces Gloria to see a part of society she never even noticed, forcing her to re-evaluate the things she values in life. It’s a very subtle character arc and by Vixen’s end, you can’t help but cheer Gloria on.
Lorraine is equally rich, but it is a pity you feel for her by the end, not sympathy. Most of her troubles she’s brought on herself, though Lorraine acts like a victim. It’s Gloria’s and Clara’s fault that she can’t get Marcus. Of course, it’s nobody’s fault. Lorraine still hasn’t figured out that sometimes the object of your affection simply doesn’t care if you exist.
As for Clara Knowles, she’s the biggest mystery of all. Her parents have sent her to Chicago after she ran off to New York City to become a flapper. She’s put in charge of her cousin Gloria’s wedding, and her aunt has threatened her with reform school if she doesn’t shape up. So Clara has to play at being the good girl despite being tempted by Marcus’ charms. Which means she’s left to watch Gloria play at being a flapper, knowing that Gloria is on the same path of destruction. But exactly what Clara’s destruction is remains deliciously unclear.
Stripping down the 1920s into an enjoyable read for the young adult crowd is no easy task. There’s heavy stuff like feminism, race, and class. Tackling those subjects can lead to automatic preachiness, but Larkin has admirably packed all that density into one book. She makes all these issues centre stage at the Green Mill without ever making it obvious. What reads as a dance between races is likely more allegorical than Vixen would ever let on. Young women putting off marriage and chasing their own dreams while their mothers wither away in loveless marriages is statement enough about the changing times. But Vixen is also an irreverent send-up to Jazz Age pop culture. There’s the endlessly entertaining 1920s slang, and the swishy, fabulous outfits, which are described in stunning detail. There are references to the icons of the era: Buster Keaton and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s better than a history lesson, and a thousand times more fun.
There are boys to die for – high-society beaus and broody bandleaders. The 1920s were fun and fabulous, but also dangerous. The gun molls were deadlier than the hired guns. Vixen’s plot reads a lot like previous 1920s series, which can be a little stale if you’re already a fan of books set in the era. But Larkin’s work is still the cat’s meow, an addictive addition to the glitzy historical Gossip Girl hybrid genre. Its sequel, Ingénue, was released recently too.