Ami McKay's first novel The Birth House was a phenomenal success. I have no doubt that her newly released second novel - The Virgin Cure - will also be bestseller. And, it's one of my favourite reads for 2011.
I was hooked from the opening line..."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."
And so begins the story of Moth, born into the slums of Manhattan in New York City. In 1871 Moth's mother sells her - to a wealthy woman looking for a young servant. When that situation becomes untenable, Moth runs away and finds herself alone on the streets with no prospects. Until the owner of a brothel in the Bowery that 'caters to men looking for young companions who are 'willing and clean' takes her in. In Miss Everett's "Infant School", the most desirous of all are virgins, for it is said that a virgin can cure a man of that most scurrilous of diseases - syphilis.
One bright light in Moth's life is Doctor Sadie, one of the first female physicians in New York City, who attends the girls at Miss Everett's establishment. The idea for the Virgin Cure was based on McKay's search into her own roots. Her great-great grandmother was a physician in New York City.
What did I love so much about this book? Well, everything! McKay's characterizations are rich, detailed and believable. I became so invested in Moth and Dr. Sadie, sharing their fears and dreams. Both of these characters are strong, strong female leads, staying true to themselves despite the obstacles put before them.
The setting is just as much of a player in the novel. McKay's depiction of 1870's New York conjured up vivid scenes crackling with detail. McKay includes historical side notes, newspaper articles, pictures and more throughout the book. I found myself on the Internet many times following up with the history she presented.
Ultimately - it's a book that is so engrossing, so readable, so fascinating that I wish I could give it six stars. I just can't seem to articulate what a great read this is from such a skilled Canadian story teller. Highly, highly recommended!
"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, bestselling author Ami McKay's much-anticipated new novel. Set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in 1871, where the author's own great-great-grandmother once worked as a groundbreaking female physician, the novel is told in the voice of Moth, the daughter of a Gypsy fortune teller and a ne'er-do-well who abandons them both a smile and a tip of his hat. Left to struggle on their own, Moth and her Mama lead a hard life, one that requires Moth to become more streetwise with each passing day. Although she comes to believe she's seen it all, nothing prepares Moth for the terrible surprise her mother gives her when she turns twelve: the news that she must leave her home to live as a servant in the house of Mrs. Wentworth, a lady of station and means (and, as Moth soon discovers, inventive cruelty).
These betrayals lead Moth to the Bowery, a wild, murky thoroughfare filled with house-thieves, pick-pockets, beggars, sideshow freaks, and prostitutes. Hungry, desperate, and haunted by a sexual predator, Moth sees an introduction to Miss Everett, the owner of a nearby brothel, as her way to a better life or, at the very least, a soft bed and a full belly. To Miss Everett, Moth is simply another chance for profit, as her establishment is known as an infant school, caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," the most desirable of them all, young virgins like Moth.
In this new life, Moth finds friendship with the other girls in the house as well as with Dr. Sadie, a visiting physician who has followed her social conscience into working with prostitutes and the poor. While Moth's housemates risk falling prey to the myth of the "virgin cure" - the belief that deflowering a girl can heal the incurable and tainted, Dr. Sadie warns Moth to question and observe the world around her so she won't share the same fate. Still, Moth dreams of her own big house on Gramercy Park and 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.
Moth and her mother live alone in a stark and dirty tenement after her father left them when she was just three-years-old. He left with the bit of money saved in a cookie tin and her Mom's only piece of silver she owned, which was a tarnished sugar bowl.
Moth wanted affection from her mother. She wanted to hold her mom's hand, sit on her lap and kiss her cheeks like all little girls do but her mother pushed her away telling her: "...when you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough." Moth said she didn't mind because she loved her mom anyway.
The summer Moth turned twelve, her mother sold her to a woman named Mrs. Wentworth and shed no tears when she was taken by this woman as her mother wouldn't stand for it. She always said: "American girls don't whimper." Moth took a seat in Mrs. Wentworth's carriage but couldn't see where they were going as all the curtains were closed. After a while the carriage rolled to a stop and all Mrs. Wentworth said was: "You're to go right to bed...I want you rested for tomorrow." As Moth was falling asleep in her new residence she whispered out loud into the room: "How much did you get for me, Mama"? What a sad thought to know that you've been `SOLD' by your own mother!
Mrs. Wentworth began whipping Moth's wrists on the soft side of her arms leaving bruises the colour of a rainbow. She then began slapping her across the face for the smallest of infractions. She was jealous of Moth's beauty and she was out to destroy that beauty. Moth suffered so much pain for such a young girl.
Can you imagine growing up poor, living in a filthy dirty tenement, your mother is a Gypsy fortune-teller, you have hardly any food and then you're sold by the very woman who gave birth to you!
I was immediately drawn in by this story, I was mesmerized and could picture in mind's eye the brothel, the rooms and could actually "feel" Moth's embarrassment at having to undress for the men. I was so attuned to Moth's psyche that I could feel what she felt and shared her heartbreak and pain at every turn and that makes for some very good writing. To enable a reader to get into the mind of the character is no easy feat but Ms. McKay pulls it off without a hitch.
The book definitely lived up to long wait and I'd highly recommend it to everyone and plan on keeping this as part of my permanent collection.
How could you not fall in love with a child of 12 with the name of Moth who begins her story with the words: `Mama sold me the summer I turned twelve'.
This is a poignant, touching story telling of the way things were for many people in New York in the late 1800's. It is historical fiction well researched to the point of giving the reader a true rendering of what life for a child such as Moth could very well have been, bringing to light some startling revelations about myths that were very popular at that time.
Beautifully written, easy to read with depictions of notices & advertisements of the day.
I wanted to give 5 stars but would have liked a bit more out of the ending. I felt the stories about some of the secondary characters were not complete. I would like to have known their fate.
Otherwise this book is well worth the time to read.
on January 22, 2012
Having loved Amy McKay's first novel, The Birth House, I had my fingers crossed that The Virgin Cure would not disappoint. And it did not. Set in the poorest neighbourhoods of New York City in the 1870s, McKay creates wonderful Dickensian characters. From the girl protagonist Moth and her fortune-telling mother, to Dr. Sadie, an independent woman who defies the conventions of the period, McKay creates characters who are rich and vivid. While the plot was, at some points, quite predictable, McKay's addition of historical sidebar anecdotes from the period more than make up for this weakness. The story is ripe for a screen adaptation.
on December 9, 2011
While I definitely enjoyed The Virgin Cure (and had problems putting it down some evenings) I felt that there was something lacking from the story. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I felt that the story lacked a little bit of depth, and was a little too predictable at times. I think overall I really enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book, and felt a little let down by the last part. That being said I would still recommend the book as an enjoyable read, and if you haven't read The Birth House I would recommend reading that, as in my opinion it is the better book out of the two.