The Virgin Cure
By Ami McKay
Published 2011, Random House
Paperback, 354 pages
Following in the footsteps of The Birth House, her powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!)I loved Ami McKay's first book, The Birth House, so I was eager to read this one without even knowing the synopsis. This book did not really live up to the quality of the first book, but I did still enjoy it. While the title conveys the idea that the focus of the book is this social problem of the myth of the "virgin cure", in reality the book was really about the life of the main character, Moth. The virgin cure only plays a part in two small events, and serves better as a footnote to Moth's life.
"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 his wife and daughter forever, and Moth has never stopped imagining that one day they may be reunited – despite knowing in her heart what he chose over them. Her hard mother is barely making a living with her fortune-telling, sometimes for well-heeled clients, yet Moth is all too aware of how she really pays the rent.
Life would be so much better, Moth knows, if fortune had gone the other way - if only she'd had the luxury of a good family and some station in life. The young Moth spends her days wandering the streets of her own and better neighbourhoods, imagining what days are like for the wealthy women whose grand yet forbidding gardens she slips through when no one's looking. Yet every night Moth must return to the disease- and grief-ridden tenements she calls home.
The summer Moth turns twelve, her mother puts a halt to her explorations by selling her boots to a local vendor, convinced that Moth was planning to run away. Wanting to make the most of her every asset, she also sells Moth to a wealthy woman as a servant, 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, but also a locale frequented by New York's social elite. Their patronage supports the shadowy undersphere, where businesses can flourish if they truly understand the importance of wealth and social standing - and of keeping secrets. In that world Moth meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as an "infant school." There Moth finds the orderly solace she has always wanted, and begins to imagine herself embarking upon a new path.
Yet salvation does not come without its price: 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. That's not the worst of the situation, though. In a time and place where mysterious illnesses ravage those who haven't been cautious, no matter their social station, diseased men yearn for a "virgin cure" - thinking that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works to help young women like her, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her. Moth's new friends are falling prey to fates both expected and forced upon them, yet she knows the law will not protect her, and that polite society ignores her. 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.
Moth is quite an interesting girl from the start, having the maturity of a much older person as she deals with her mother's methods of making money along with her drinking habits, even as she finds her own ways of survival. Despite being of such a young age, she is aware of the struggles of the people around her and knows enough to recognize what a better life would look like for herself - even beyond the trappings of wealth. While sold by her own mother for the price of a sack of coins, Moth still longs to impress her and return to her. From there, she encounters one horror after another, many hidden behind a veneer of wealth and privilege. Her desires propel her to take on a different name in an effort to change her very identity into the kind of person she longs to be.
Dr. Sadie's intervention into Moth's life provides a nice contrast to what Moth lived with day-to-day. As McKay's original protagonist, she provided another appealing way of life other than one of wealth and privilege. Her journal entries in the book also showed how Moth appeared to others. Despite the struggles that Dr. Sadie endured as a female physician, I liked the part she played in Moth's life and the things she showed Moth.
As for the format of the book, I found it a bit strange sometimes. The pages often held side notes that had little to do with the plot, and were better at serving as distractions, plus chapters often began with poems or quotes that were vague at best and required some intelligent deciphering to figure out how they contributed to the book. The journal entries of Dr. Sadie that peppered the book held the most valuable writing, as it fit in with the timeline of the plot. I think the book would have fared better with less distractions, more plotting, and a better title.
The Cover: I liked the cover for the picture of the main character, as well as the moths that littered the cover, but I did not care for the title. I did not feel that the title adequately conveyed the main plot.
First 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."
This is a very succinct opening line, as it does a good job of summing up the main character.
Favorite Quote: "I don't want to belong to anyone."
Read For: Just For Fun Challenge