If you decide to read The Virgin Cure (and this review is going to try its damnedest to convince you that you absolutely must), make sure you don’t skip the Author’s Note at the end. That’s because Ami McKay’s concluding commentary is just as important – and just as haunting – as her sophomore novel itself.
There she writes that “in 1870, over thirty thousand children lived on the streets of New York City and many more wandered in and out of the cellars and tenements as their families struggled to scrape together enough income to put food on the table.” (pg. 317)
Let that sink in a moment.
Thirty thousand children. Living on the streets.
The Virgin Cure takes its title from a myth – and a very real fate that befell many young girls of this time.
“Sold into prostitution at a young age, many girls from poor families were brokered by madams (or even their own parents) as “fresh maids.” Men paid the highest price for girls who had been “certified” as virgins. At this time in New York, syphilis was an overwhelming, widespread puzzle of a disease with no remedy….An even greater tragedy than the human wreckage resulting from this disease was a deadly myth that preyed upon young girls. The myth of “the virgin cure” – the belief that a man with syphilis could “cleanse his blood” by deflowering a virgin – was without social borders and was acted out in every socioeconomic class in some form or another. In fact, the more money a man had, the easier it would have been for him to procure a young girl for this unthinkable act.” (pg. 318)
I had no idea.
A lot of people don’t, which makes this historical novel such an important one. Although Ami McKay’s main character of Moth, just 12 years old, is fictional, she represents a part of our history that should not and cannot be forgotten. She has awoken in me an interest to read and learn more about this time.
When we first meet Moth (named thus because of a whispered word that her long-gone father supposedly heard from a pear tree), her destitute and fortune-telling mother has arranged for her to be sold as a maid to the wealthy Mrs. Wentworth. Whether Moth’s mother truly believed she was giving her daughter a better life or whether she knew the hardships she would encounter is irrelevant; Moth soon becomes one of the many street urchins in the Bowery section of New York City,
Despite her hardships, Moth never forgets her mother nor gives up loving her, even when almost every other person in her life gives up on her or assigns the 12-year-old to an unimaginable fate.
“Sometimes, for a moment, everything is just as you need it to be. The memories of such moments live in the heart, waiting for the time you need to think on them, if only to remind yourself that for a short while, everything had been fine and might be so again. I didn’t have many memories like that ….” (pg. 222-223)
You know Moth is going to succumb to the temptation of prostitution because the rewards and comforts of that life are just too great. (Even if the jacket copy didn’t give away that particular plot twist, the reader easily sees that coming, despite longing to step inside the pages and prevent the inevitable from happening.)
What isn’t expected (among a few twists that Ms. McKay expertly gives us) is the kindness shown to Moth by Dr. Sadie, a female physician (a rarity in the 1870s!) who cares for the girls living at Miss Everett’s “boarding house.” And this is also where the Author’s Note section becomes especially powerful, as Ms. McKay shares that Dr. Sadie is inspired by a real person – in this case, Ami McKay’s own great-great grandmother Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, who studied under Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.
I absolutely loved this aspect – and really, every single aspect – of The Virgin Cure. I was fascinated that a Dr. Sadie actually existed, and her courage left me breathless. If I have any criticism of this novel (and this may be the only one, and it’s minor), it is that I wanted to know a little more about Dr. Sadie.
Through her precise writing, command of what must have been countless research, and evocations of emotions on every page, Ami McKay immerses her reader in every aspect of life in 1870s New York, bringing such a depressing, politically corrupt, and overall difficult time period to vivid life. She does this by including ephemera from that era alongside the narrative. Lyrics, poetry, letters, descriptions of clothing, author’s notes, and more provide more of a vivid picture (if that’s possible) of the timeframe and hardships.
I loved this additional information. As it was, I was right there in the Bowery with Moth slurping oyster stew, and with her lacing up Mrs. Wentworth’s corset, and in the hall as she was kissed. My heart broke several times in this book, over and over again. (If you have a tween-age daughter or love a girl who is that age, know that there will be parts of this that will be absolutely heart wrenching to read.)
But it is for those very reasons that I cannot emphasize how important a book The Virgin Cure is. And like much of life itself, then and as well as now, the heartbreaking parts are also what gives this novel its unparalleled beauty.
Highly recommended read (a new designation that I am giving to those books that are truly exceptional for one reason or another and that I find myself recommending to others repeatedly)
I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Virgin Cure from the publisher, via TLC Book Tours. I did not receive any compensation in exchange for my honest review. As always, my thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour.
Click here to see the other bloggers participating on the tour and what they thought of The Virgin Cure.