4.5⭐️ – This was my first book by Anne Shade and I had no idea what to expect but it was certainly not this. First of all, the atmosphere is brilliant. The way Anne Shade describes the places, the clothes, the vocabulary and turns of phrases she uses carried me easily to Harlem in the 1920s. Some scenes were so vivid in my mind that it was almost like watching a movie. Without hammering the point, she makes it clear all along that the only way for two women to make a life together is to hide, which leaves the door open to blackmail, both from gangsters and from malicious suitors, but also adds a deliciously forbidden taste to the freedom they find.
All her life, Celine has done what was expected of her. And really, how could she not, as a young Creole woman in a tightly structured society in 1923 New Orleans? To avoid being married off to a man of her parents’ choosing, she married her best friend, an arrangement that worked for both of them until tragedy struck. When Celine’s family is forced to move to Harlem, Celine discovers that life can be very different from what she has known so far. So different, in fact, that she finds herself torn between two women, between what her heart wants and what her body craves.
There are all sorts of characters in this story, besides Celine and her unbending parents. Olivia, Celine’s aunt, is one of my favourites. She’s smart, kind, and full of secrets, some of which you just know have to be scandalous. The two women vying for Celine are fascinating too. There’s Dinah, a nurse and dancer, loving, sexy and experienced, and on the other hand, there’s steamy hot Philly, whose dangerous way of life makes her all the more attractive.
This novel is seriously hot. After years of denying her true self, Celine learns a lot about herself and what her body desires. The chemistry with Dinah is instant and strong but somewhat softened by the love they share. With Philly, Celine knows no other bounds than what her conscience will let her get away with.
Just a warning: there’s one scene that made me really uneasy. It’s very important to the story and entirely justified, and is, in itself, not far from a tour de force. To help Dinah out of a bad situation, Celine makes a decision that leads her to consent to things she might not have agreed to in different circumstances. The consent line is blurry in a way that makes absolute sense, and Shade describes the conflicting emotions and desires to which Celine is confronted perfectly.
Around these women gravitates a mix of bad guys and pleasure-seeking women (mostly), in what at times feels like the freest society ever. Yet just as the characters start believing in this freedom, they’re reminded of how heavy the constraints brought by race, class and sexual orientation can be.
Masquerade is an unexpectedly wild ride, in turns thrilling and chilling. There’s nothing more exciting than a woman’s quest for freedom and self-discovery.