Source- Review copy
Publisher- Hachette/ Orion
Publication date- 28th February, 2012
Synopsis: “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 her forever. The summer she turned twelve, her mother sold her as a servant to a wealthy woman, 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, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as “The Infant School.” 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.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her, where her new friends are falling prey to the myth of the “virgin cure”–that deflowering a “fresh maid” can heal the incurable and tainted. She knows the law will not protect her, that polite society ignores her, and 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.
Review: The Virgin Cure is set in the late eighteenth century in New York. Moth, a twelve year old girl who lives with her mother in the slums on Christie Street, has big plans for herself in life…if only she wasn’t the daughter of a Gypsy and living in poverty. The author describes the notorious underworld of the city from the eyes of a young girl and her matter-of-fact retelling is both engaging and kind of disturbing. Moth’s mother sells her to a wealthy family at the age of 12, to earn an income as a lady’s maid. Moth is both excited and anxious to be leaving Christie Street behind, but her life takes a turn for the worse when she moves in with the sadistic, jealous and punitive Mrs Worthington. Moth is physically and emotionally abused and with the help of the butler, she plans an escape. Back on the streets, Moth discovers her mother is missing and she is essentially homeless and orphaned- which isn’t too much of a surprise given Moth has always had to rely on herself in the world anyway.
A young girl befriends Moth and invites her into The Infant School, a brothel that train virgins to become high class prostitutes. Miss Everett runs the establishment and is instantly taken by Moth. Moth is enticed by the world of pretty dresses and financial stability and joins the establishment to undergo training in preparation for her big night… when she will lose her virginity to the highest bidder. To Moth’s benefit, she develops a relationship with the female physician of the house, Dr Sadie who offers her a life outside of the one she has chosen, though she declines. Dr Sadie fears for Moth’s innocence and tries to ensure that she does not fall privy to a man in seek of the virgin cure, a myth that bedding a virgin can cure diseases. With syphilis on the rise, men from all backgrounds of social standing are seduced by the myth of the virgin cure.
The Virgin Cure is told from the perspective of young Moth, but the story is interspersed with Dr Sadie’s thoughts and various articles which sets Moth’s story against a broader understanding of the era. Moth is an engaging character who is very naive and innocent and seeks what all children need: affection and unconditional love. With a difficult start to life and a neglectful mother, Moth strives to rise above her fate and create success without relying on a man. I like that the author did not save Moth in the end through a romantic liasion or a wealthy man, rather she saves herself. Dr Sadie’s role was also quite fascinating, especially so after learning her character was inspired by a relative in the author’s family history.
Completely different to anything i’ve read before because of the young protagonist voice and the straightforwardness of the author that reflects the reality of the times. The Virgin Cure is an enticing read, with captivating characters and a simplistic language that drew me in and left me wanting more.
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Please drop by tomorrow and check out my Q&A with the author, Ami McKay.