Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Virgin Cure (Ami McKay, 2011)

The Heroine: Moth Fenwick, the young daughter of a gypsy fortune teller living in the slums of New York City in 1871. Naive, innocent and yearning for a life outside of her means, Moth runs away from her position as a lady's maid to join a brothel specializing in virgins – a girl's virginity is worth much more to the men who hire courtesans. Entering a life of luxury and sin, Moth must choose between the creature comforts of life as a high-class prostitute or her morality.

The Highs: I love the plot of this novel. I have never read a book from the perspective of a prostitute and I found the inside look at a nineteenth-century brothel to be fascinating and fresh. I also appreciated the historical details incorporated into the novel, mainly in the form of the margin notes by Dr. Sadie, including a diagram on a corset's effect on internal organs, notes on the signs of syphilis and the story of the fabled "virgin cure". It provided a realistic element to the story that greatly enhanced reading.

I also loved the many secondary characters that made the story lively and interesting: Miss Rose Duval, an Moth's mentor prostitute; Mrs. Wentworth, the lady who tortures Moth when she worked as a maid and many of the circus performers at the Bowery. This book is also peppered with women who support early examples of feminism before the twentieth century, including a female doctor and a female business owner (though it is a brothel). I found it an interesting study in early modern women.

The fact that the author was inspired by her great- great- grandmother, a doctor in the 1800s who treated poor women and children, a largely ignored sector of society. As someone quite interested in history and family studies, I found the author's personal story (written in the Author's Notes) enchanting and delightful.

The Lows: I did not really care for the protagonist, Moth. I found her dull and lifeless, as well as under-developed. She doesn't have much of a personality and, at the end of the story, I didn't feel like I had a really clear understanding of who she was. While this can happen easily when a book is written in first person (as The Virgin Cure is), I expected more from an author who got such high acclaim for her previous book The Birth House.

I also found that she didn't focus enough attention on expanding the most interesting parts of the story, which were the subplots like the romance between Alice and Cadet, the conflict between Mrs. Wentworth and her husband and the inner working of a prostitute like Rose Duval. The story never did explain why Mr. Wentworth was so disgusted with his wife! I wish the author would have discarded scenes where Moth is begging on the streets in exchange for the more interesting and dramatic stories going on in the background. Perhaps the novel would have been improved even more if it had been from the perspective of another character altogether rather than on the lacklustre Moth!

I personally found that the writing, while technically good, lacked emotion and suspense. I didn't feel enraptured in the story, with the exception of the very last chapters, and I certainly had no interest at what happened to Moth. The lack of suspense in the story really hurts its appeal; there is no mystery to keep you turning the pages.

Final Thoughts: While the plot and concept of The Virgin Cure is interesting and appealing, I found the story lacking and consequently it took me awhile to get through this book. Maybe I'm a cold-hearted witch, but I didn't feel anything for Moth's plight.

Rating: The Virgin Cure earns six cartes de visite out of ten. 

Buy 'The Virgin Cure' on Amazon here
Connect to author Ami McKay here
Photo from Favim

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