The Virgin Cure: A Novel
Ami McKay (Facebook) (Twitter) (Pinterest)
Harper Perennial (July 2013), trade paper (ISBN 0061140341 / 9780061140341)
Fiction (historical), 352 pages
Source: Hardcover provided by publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour (to support the paperback edition)
Opening lines: “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.
“My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother’s only piece of silver–a tarnished sugar bowl she’d found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
“‘Don’t go…’ Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father’s coat. Lying next to her, I’d wish for morning and the hours when she’d go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website
One summer night in Lower Manhattan in 1871, twelve-year-old Moth is pulled from her bed and sold as a servant to a finely dressed woman. Knowing that her mother is so close while she is locked away in servitude, Moth bides her time until she can escape, only to find her old home deserted and her mother gone without a trace. Moth must struggle to survive alone in the murky world of the Bowery, a wild and lawless enclave filled with thieves, beggars, sideshow freaks, and prostitutes.
She eventually meets Miss Everett, the proprietress of an “Infant School,” a brothel that caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for “willing and clean” companions—desirable young virgins like Moth. She also finds friendship with Dr. Sadie, a female physician struggling against the powerful forces of injustice. The doctor hopes to protect Moth from falling prey to a terrible myth known as the “virgin cure”—the tragic belief that deflowering a “fresh maid” can cleanse the blood and heal men afflicted with syphilis—which has destroyed the lives of other Bowery girls.
Ignored by society and unprotected by the law, Moth dreams of independence. But there’s a high price to pay for freedom, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
Comments: I’ve had Ami McKay’s 2012 historical novel The Virgin Cure on my radar since it was originally published, so I jumped at the chance to read it for a blog tour tied to the paperback edition. The novel’s premise was simultaneously fascinating and repellent to me: it’s the story of a young girl on her own in 19th-century New York City who ends up as a prostitute-in-training…because, really, how many other options might she have, outside of the streets and the orphan trains? In addition, it sounded like it shared some elements of time and place with something else that landed on my radar around the same time, BBC America’s Civil-War-era, Lower-Manhattan-set police procedural Copper, which featured a girl in similar circumstances during its first season. And while I’ll admit that the TV show did help me to visualize Moth’s world in my mind’s eye, McKay’s story did take me to a very different place.
Moth Fenwick escapes servitude to a wealthy but very unstable woman–a position she was sold into be her own mother–and returns to the Bowery slums to discover she is now both parentless and homeless. Driven into the streets, she meets Mae, a bold and seemingly prosperous girl just a few years older. Mae lives in the house of Miss Emma Everett with four other young women–three of whom are popular and established prostitutes, while Mae and Alice are “whores-in-training”–and assures Moth there’s room for one more. The comfort and companionship of Miss Everett’s house draws Moth in, but she’s uneasy with what she’ll eventually be expected to do in order to remain there…and so is “Dr. Sadie,” the woman physician who tends to the girls, and who is all too aware of a special danger to those new to the trade. Miss Everett can obtain a high price for a girl’s first time, but if the girl is chosen to provide “the virgin cure” that’s believed to cure syphilis, she’s the one who ultimately will pay it.
The Virgin Cure is told through Moth’s first-person narration, and I loved the voice that McKay gave her–it didn’t feel anachronistic to me, but it was modern enough in style that my reading just sailed along. And I loved the character Moth had, too–observant, determined, and resourceful, but never to a degree that strained credibility. I also appreciated that many of the other characters displayed shadings and dimensions that the supporting cast in a first-person narrative doesn’t always receive; for me, the richness of the novel came primarily from the characters themselves, and less from the setting and plot. However, on that note, the book is strewn with framing devices–newspaper clippings pertinent to plot developments, snippets and quotes from publications and pamphlets of the time, and entries from Dr. Sadie’s journals–that enhance its effectiveness as a document of its time and place, although I’m not clear how much of this material is culled from actual historical documents. (That said, Dr. Sadie is based on a real person–McKay’s own great-great-grandmother, who worked with the pioneering women physicians Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, McKay mentions that her original inspiration for The Virgin Cure was her ancestor’s story, but she clearly ended up shifting direction.)
The Virgin Cure goes to some dark places, but I went along with it quite willingly. It’s one of the most fully-absorbing, fully-realized works of fiction I’ve read this year, and I say that as a reader who isn’t a great fan of historical fiction as a sub-genre. That said, virtually spending a few days in the world of nearly 150 years ago can serve as a good reminder that some things in the world really have gotten better…and that for many, especially women and the poor, a return to the “good old days” wouldn’t be good at all.