Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Virgin Cure

Probably the biggest perk of writing a blog is that I can get books directly from the publisher. I don't make any money, but receiving review copies is certainly saves me some. It also means that I often get to read books before they're available in stores. Typically, I try to arrange my reading so that I finish a book just before it comes out, which allows me to blog about it shortly thereafter (I don't like to recommend books that aren't available in stores or the library, for obvious reasons). Anyway, every once in a while I mess up and read a great book weeks before I can write about it and then have to sit on it. Most recently, that was the case with Ami McKay's The Virgin Cure, the follow-up (but not sequel) to her 2007 novel The Birth House.

The Virgin Cure is set in the tenements of lower Manhattan (mostly in and around the Bowery) in 1871, and the title refers to the vile belief that a man could cure himself of venereal disease (especially syphilis) by having sex with a virgin (I should note that this belief continues in parts of the world, although McKay confines her story to a very specific time and place). Anyway, the story centers around Moth, a 12-year-old girl growing up in the Bowery. Her mother is a Gypsy fortune teller and her father ran off not long after she was born. They are desperately poor and their neighbourhood is rough. At least two girls Moth's age went missing and were found dead in recent memory. As typical of most cities, mere blocks away from the slums of the tenements is a street filled with rich homes, where Moth often walks and imagines a rich future for herself. 

One night, Moth's mother wakes her up and tells her to get her things together (not that she has much). A woman has come to take Moth away. Although she doesn't realize it at the time, Moth's mother has sold her to Mrs. Wentworth to be her personal maid. It sounds unconscionable, and Moth is confused and sleepy, but Mrs. Wentworth takes her away in a closed carriage somewhere uptown. As a personal maid, Moth is responsible for all the elements for Mrs. Wentworth's daily routine, which involves several changes of dress, reading, walking, etc. She has no experience, and although she learns quickly, Mrs. Wentworth uses every mistake as an excuse to beat the insides of Moth's arms with her lacquered fan. After a month, Mrs. Wentworth's husband is due back and, in a fit of jealousy over Moth's childish beauty, Mrs. Wentworth cuts off her braid and attacks her hands with scissors. With the butler's help, Moth escapes the house that night and goes home, only to find that her mother has packed up and moved on without her.

After some time spent begging on the streets, Moth is rescued by a very pretty girl and brought to Mrs. Everett's house. Initially, Moth is wary of being used as a servant, but she soon discovers that the house is a brothel of sorts, and Mrs. Everett sells the time and, eventually, the virginity of her young girls to well-appointed men. Moth has long understood that prostitution may be her only option, and Mrs. Everett is offering nice clothes and warm meals, so she lies about her age in order to be accepted. Mrs. Everett has a local female doctor, Dr. Sadie (based on McKay's great-great-grandmother) check the health, and virginity, of her girls, and Dr. Sadie takes a particular interest in Moth. Dr. Sadie tries to convince Moth to leave Mrs. Everett's house, but Moth understands that she is indentured, and that she will have to work off the cost of each dress and bottle of perfume purchased for her by Mrs. Everett.

Much like The Birth House, McKay combines a traditional narrative with other sources to simultaneously tell and set up the story. The straight narrative is told from Moth's perspective, but McKay uses newspaper articles, entries from Dr. Sadie's diaries, epigraphs from poetry and period guide books, and parentheses set into the side of the text, to give the story a broader feel and fill in details Moth wouldn't have known or understood. These "value-added" elements, and especially the in-text parentheses, offer all kinds of fascinating details about the clothes worn in 1870s New York City, as well as information about medical procedures, art, and even laws. Although it's sometimes distracting to have a long parentheses running down the side of the main text, they are all worth reading because little by little they place the fictional story of Moth into the real-life context that McKay's great-great-grandmother would have been living in.

It's hard to talk about The Virgin Cure without making comparisons to The Birth House, because both novels have such strong central characters, and both have so much to do with the way female sexuality was controlled by men. I devoured both books in only a couple of days, but after finishing The Virgin Cure, I woke up in the middle of the night overcome by worry for Moth, who I guess I had been dreaming about. It sounds silly now, but at the time I was so concerned about what had happened that it took me a while to get back to sleep. McKay has a way of writing historical fiction in which the story is subtly transposed to modern-day by the reader. She is not anachronistic, but the stories she tells about women and sexuality are relevant and moving, and they're stories that don't allow you to move on simply by re-shelving the book.

The Virgin Cure
by Ami McKay
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Knopf Canada edition)


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