Maeve Fanning, an educated young Irish American in Depression-era Boston, wants to move forward in life, and aims high. When she gets wind of a sales job at an exclusive antique shop, she bleaches her red tresses to disguise her heritage, calls herself May (“with a y”), and finagles her way into the position. There, under the guidance of the store’s English co-owner, who appreciates her ingenuity, she learns how to gear her pitch to its eccentric, wealthy customers.
However, there’s a problem. Maeve has a scandalous past, one that her mother, a respectable widow, doesn’t know about. During a recent stint in New York City, Maeve worked as a dancer-for-hire, drank too much bootleg gin, and ended up somewhere she can’t ever mention. Just when she’s getting used to her reinvented self, her past surfaces unexpectedly in the form of Diana Van der Laar. A socialite whose family fortune comes from South African diamonds, Diana may seem like Maeve’s polar opposite, but they become friends, both women concealing the socially unacceptable parts of their lives out of necessity. But Diana is more complex and damaged than Maeve knows, and the deeper Maeve gets into her world, the more she risks losing sight of her goals.
This gutsy, absorbing story about self-deception and belonging is remarkable in its honesty. The settings exude authenticity, both the scenes of immigrant family life in Boston’s North End and upper-crust society parties, which never go as perfectly as its organizers hope. The story bounces around time-wise in the beginning, and more details on Maeve’s future plans would have been nice. The wanting more of a novel, though, that’s a good sign. Tessaro is a natural storyteller, and her story goes where it needs to without being predictable. The result is a compelling tale that reads like real life.