Etiquette for Runaways

Written by Liza Nash Taylor
Review by Kristen McDermott

Taylor chooses two iconic Jazz-Age settings—New York and Paris—for this roller-coaster of a historical novel. May Valentine Marshall is a girl who always finds herself on the outside looking in wherever she goes, whether the cotillion society of Virginia, the hectic world of New York’s “black-and-tan” nightclub scene, or the dreamlike environment of Montmartre. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, May depends on her childhood friend, Byrd, and her housekeeper Delphine for emotional support—but a scandal that results in her expulsion from Mary Baldwin College in 1924 distances her from her family and friends and propels her to the Big City.

Taylor is notable for publishing her debut novel at the age of 60, and the wealth of her own experiences living in all three settings comes through in her sparkling descriptions of the two glamorous cities. The third setting, northern Virginia, is rendered so lovingly and beautifully that readers will wonder why May ever wanted to leave.

Taylor keeps piling on poor May’s misfortunes: her father is a moonshiner in trouble with the feds; her New York adventure turns to disaster when her ne’er-do-well roommate gets her addicted to cocaine, and her dream job in Paris as a costume designer for the scandalous Les Folies Noires show is snatched away by medieval union rules. All this happens in a single eventful year, and the narrative begins to creak under the weight of all the trauma that Taylor loads on a frustratingly passive heroine. May’s kindheartedness and progressive attitudes toward race are often at odds with her naivete and humorlessness. She manages to be both obstinate and impetuous in the same moments, obsessing over small details in a way that makes the pace drag a little despite the fascinating supporting characters (one of which is modeled on Josephine Baker) that she befriends in her adventures.