Verdict: The combination of warmth, fun, and smouldering passion with the dark, prejudice-ridden historical context makes Vanda Writer’s OLYMPUS NIGHTS ON THE SQUARE a tale not to be missed.
World War II is over, and life in New York is returning to normal. However, peacetime for many brings with it a return to the repressive gender and sexual roles that had become relaxed during the 20s and 30s, and especially once many men had gone overseas to fight. Alice ‘Al’ Huffman, however, remains as in love with the beautiful, ambitious and married Juliana as ever. To this end, she urges her closest friend, Maxwell Harlington III, formerly one of the greatest New York nightclub owners before the war and the discovery of his homosexuality, to start up a club once more. Together Al, Juliana and Max, along with the many friends they assemble along the way, deal with the rise of McCarthyism, violent mobsters, and a public who are becoming more aware of, and more prejudiced against, the existence of LGBTQ people.
It should be noted that OLYMPUS NIGHTS ON THE SQUARE is actually the second volume of the ‘Juliana’ series, though it is easily readable and understandable without having read the preceding volume. Despite the name, the focus is entirely on Al Huffman, though she in turn is ever motivated by her love for the titular Juliana. Al is a wonderful protagonist, and Writer does an excellent job of subtly tracing her development from shy, passionate young woman to the quietly strong and well respected first female manager of a New York nightclub. Indeed, all of Writer’s main characters are engaging and interesting, sometimes irritating but not unlikable, and even minor characters are highly memorable. On a deeper level, Writer also does a wonderful job illustrating the confusion that the many LGBTQ characters face, living in a time where terms like ‘LGBTQ’ did not exist, and any academic or psychological writing was likely to be condemnatory. She very powerfully shows the varying levels of internal prejudice and self-loathing each character holds, and how they cope.
What lends the book both atmosphere and credibility is the careful blending of fictional characters with historical figures like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen, notable society writers of the 40s and 50s, as well as well known LGBTQ figures of the time, such as Gladys Bentley. These details ground the book in the historical context and remind the reader, in case one gets distracted by the humour, the fast pace or the romance, that the novel only finishes in 1955, and the Stonewall riots, along with any glimmer of hope that societal prejudice will be overcome, are still a long way off.
The combination of warmth, fun, and smouldering passion with the dark, prejudice-ridden historical context makes Vanda Writer’s OLYMPUS NIGHTS ON THE SQUARE a tale not to be missed.
~Ben Miller-Jarvest for IndieReader