Following in the footsteps of The Birth House, her powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!)
"I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart." So begins The Virgin Cure, a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth's father smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from his wife and daughter forever, and Moth has never stopped imagining that one day they may be reunited – despite knowing in her heart what he chose over them. Her hard mother is barely making a living with her fortune-telling, sometimes for well-heeled clients, yet Moth is all too aware of how she really pays the rent.
Life would be so much better, Moth knows, if fortune had gone the other way - if only she'd had the luxury of a good family and some station in life. The young Moth spends her days wandering the streets of her own and better neighbourhoods, imagining what days are like for the wealthy women whose grand yet forbidding gardens she slips through when no one's looking. Yet every night Moth must return to the disease- and grief-ridden tenements she calls home.
The summer Moth turns twelve, her mother puts a halt to her explorations by selling her boots to a local vendor, convinced that Moth was planning to run away. Wanting to make the most of her every asset, she also sells Moth to a wealthy woman as a servant, with no intention of ever seeing her again.
These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks and prostitutes, but also a locale frequented by New York's social elite. Their patronage supports the shadowy undersphere, where businesses can flourish if they truly understand the importance of wealth and social standing - and of keeping secrets. In that world Moth meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as an "infant school." There Moth finds the orderly solace she has always wanted, and begins to imagine herself embarking upon a new path.
Yet salvation does not come without its price: Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth. That's not the worst of the situation, though. In a time and place where mysterious illnesses ravage those who haven't been cautious, no matter their social station, diseased men yearn for a "virgin cure" - thinking that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works to help young women like her, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her. Moth's new friends are falling prey to fates both expected and forced upon them, yet she knows the law will not protect her, and that polite society ignores her. Still she dreams of answering to no one but herself. There's a high price for such independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 25th 2011 by Knopf Canada
ISBN 0676979564 (ISBN13: 9780676979565)
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I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.Moth, an unusual and mystical-sounding name given her by an errant father, is one of the unfortunate born into poverty and misfortune, and yet she is...gifted. She is special.
Moth is smart and adaptable and almost fearless. A twelve-year-old girl, she is forsaken by her mother, a local mystic and fortune-teller, but she determinedly finds her way, via a path to an "infant school". An infant school would be considered very upsetting and disturbing to any woman of this generation, but for a young girl on her own in the late 1800s of Manhattan, it could be her only saving grace. Some of these girls came to the "school" of their own accord, others were sold to them by poverty-stricken relatives.
In "infant schools", young girls were taught all about how to charm a man, how to intrigue him and entice him, and hold his interest. How to drive up her own worth in his eyes, so that he would be willing to pay a large sum for her "innocence". Then her virginity would be sold for a pretty penny, and the girl could then opt to leave the school to fend for herself, or to become a professional prostitute.
Believe it or not, these girls were the lucky ones. They had a chance at security, food in their bellies and a warm place to sleep at night. They were well-fed, well-dressed, but in return they were exploited for financial gain. They were essentially sexual slaves. But the alternative was unthinkable. Begging on the streets, attacked in alleys. The name of the book comes from the idea that men had of the "Virgin Cure". Men believed that if they were sick (perhaps with syphilis or gonorrhea), that having sex with a young virgin would cure them. This idea is still prevalent in areas of Africa today, and is one of the reasons that AIDS has a stranglehold on that country, as men rape young girls in hopes of curing themselves of AIDS. The girls in the infant schools were supposed to be safe from this atrocity, as the men that came to the schools and "courted" the girls were men of means, and were supposed to be clean and uninfected.
But Moth won't be restrained. She has her wings. And, with the help of some well-placed friends, she is able to rise up and fly under her own power.
I loved this story, and I found author Ami McKay's writing to be very effective and moving. Normally I don't quote from ARCs, as I know that the publishers ask that you don't. However her writing was so beautiful, I feel driven to share a few small tastes, and I don't have access to an official release to check against. So let me preface this by saying that these brief quotes have not been checked against a release copy, so what you see here may differ from the actual release.
“You a beggar-- go away.”
Her voice was throaty and mean, as if she meant for the words to stick in my ears. (p.83)
My heartbreak that night was terribly polite. It let me know it was coming for me, even when I insisted on ignoring it. (p. 88)The book also has little tidbits and notes in the margins that give you a glimpse into the era and at times explain a little about a topic in the story. One of things you learn from one of these tips is the disturbing reality of life for young girls in the 1800s.
In 1871, under common law, the age of consent was ten years of age. (In Delaware it was seven.) (p. 123)The one complaint that I have is that sometimes it was hard to discern the transition from the story to a news article or a "diary entry" or letter by the doctor. Perhaps they could have used different typeface and margins and such to make it easier to indicate the switch?
My final word: At times shocking and disturbing, but overall a very moving and satisfying read, I highly recommend this book. Perhaps it is my logical techy mind that allows me to detach and think that these "infant schools" (although the name really sticks in my craw!) really makes sense, and could be a good move for a young girl that otherwise had no other offers in life. At least it gave her a chance. But on the other hand, I fume that there was such a demand for a young girl's exploitation to begin with! This story isn't for the faint of heart, but this rare gem is perfect for someone looking for a new kind of heroine-- a heroine perhaps not as delicate and fancy as one of those frilly butterflies, but a Moth gritty and spunky enough to knock the dust off her wings and take flight once again...
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to be a part of this tour.
Check out the master schedule for the book tour:
Tuesday, June 26th: Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, June 27th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, June 28th: Reading on a Rainy Day
Friday, June 29th: Bookworm with a View
Monday, July 2nd: Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, July 4th: Book Him Danno!
Thursday, July 5th: nomadreader
Monday, July 9th: Broken Teepee
Tuesday, July 10th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, July 11th: Bookworm’s Dinner
Thursday, July 12th: A Novel Source
Monday, July 16th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, July 17th: Lit and Life
Wednesday, July 18th: Twisting the Lens
Thursday, July 19th: “That’s Swell!”
Monday, July 23rd: Just Joanna
Wednesday, July 25th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, July 26th: Peeking Between the Pages
TBD: Into the Hall of Books
Cover: 8 out of 10
Writing Style: 8.5 out of 10
Characters: 8 out of 10
Storyline/Plot: 8.5 out of 10
Interest/Uniqueness: 8.5 out of 10
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10
I received a copy of this book to review through TLC Book Tours and Knopf Canada, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and any quotes could differ from the actual release copy.