Author: Ami McKay
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / New York City / Prostitution / Poverty / Coming of Age)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (6/ 26/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a good deal!
Did I finish?: I couldn't stop.
One-sentence summary: The Dickensian life of Moth, a 12-year old girl who finds herself in a brothel that specializes in virgins.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, as Peter Stuyvesant's pear tree features in the story on the fringe, and I like that it's restrained compared to the lurid promise of the plot.
I'm reminded of...: Geraldine Brooks, Talia Carner, Sadie Jones, Lois Leveen
First line: To the Reader: In 1871, I was serving as a visiting physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a fantastical novel.
Why did I get this book?: The title!
Review: Despite the title and the premise, this isn't a 'sexy' book, and it's not a historical romance. It's a delightfully real, horrifyingly evocative look at 19th century New York City of the poor -- and one girl's experience with a brothel that specializes in virgins.
(I snarfed this book down during a work conference, and struggled with this review during my post-conference cold, so I apologize now for not properly conveying the delightful awesomeness of McKay's novel.)
The story is told by Moth, in her voice, annotated by Dr. Sadie, a physician of means inspired by the work Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who offers care to prostitutes in the Bowery. Moth, a twelve-year old girl, is sold by her mother as a servant to a cruel, rich Manhattanite -- and when she can't stand that life another moment, she flees, deciding life as cared-for prostitute might be better. It is there, at the 'Infant School', where she meets Dr. Sadie, and she learns what power and fortune she can claim for herself.
Often a hard-to-stomach story, McKay's writing kept me coming back -- I'd put the book down for work, or sleep, or something else, and literally vibrate with eagerness until I could pick it back up again. Moth felt real -- which made reading her story so discomforting! But I trusted McKay and the arc of the book and in the end, I was deeply satisfied. The conclusion -- hopeful but realistic -- left me able to close the book without feeling too devastated and I'm already missing Moth and Dr. Sadie. (I'd love a novel about Dr. Sadie, who was inspired by McKay's ancestor!)
Even those allergic to historical fiction might enjoy this novel as I found the heart of the story to be Moth's coming unto her own. New York City of the 1870s -- especially Manhattan and the Bowery -- came alive but didn't overshadow Moth or her story. I can't rave enough about the way McKay articulated what could have been a credulity-straining plot and I so enjoyed the unique way she told Moth's story. Titillating enough in premise for summer but with enough heft to keep one engaged, this is one that's going to make my must read for 2012.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Virgin Cure to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 7/13.