“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, bestselling author Ami McKay’s much-anticipated new novel. Set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in 1871, where the author’s own great-great-grandmother once worked as a groundbreaking female physician, the novel is told in the voice of Moth, the daughter of a Gypsy fortune teller and a ne’er-do-well who abandons them both a smile and a tip of his hat. Left to struggle on their own, Moth and her Mama lead a hard life, one that requires Moth to become more streetwise with each passing day. Although she comes to believe she’s seen it all, nothing prepares Moth for the terrible surprise her mother gives her when she turns twelve: the news that she must leave her home to live as a servant in the house of Mrs. Wentworth, a lady of station and means (and, as Moth soon discovers, inventive cruelty).
These betrayals lead Moth to the Bowery, a wild, murky thoroughfare filled with house-thieves, pick-pockets, beggars, sideshow freaks, and prostitutes. Hungry, desperate, and haunted by a sexual predator, Moth sees an introduction to Miss Everett, the owner of a nearby brothel, as her way to a better life or, at the very least, a soft bed and a full belly. To Miss Everett, Moth is simply another chance for profit, as her establishment is known as an infant school, caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are “willing and clean,” the most desirable of them all, young virgins like Moth.
In this new life, Moth finds friendship with the other girls in the house as well as with Dr. Sadie, a visiting physician who has followed her social conscience into working with prostitutes and the poor. While Moth’s housemates risk falling prey to the myth of the “virgin cure” – the belief that deflowering a girl can heal the incurable and tainted, Dr. Sadie warns Moth to question and observe the world around her so she won’t share the same fate. Still, Moth dreams of her own big house on Gramercy Park and 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 and her mother live alone in a stark and dirty tenement after her father left them when she was just three-years-old. He left with the bit of money saved in a cookie tin and her Mom’s only piece of silver she owned, which was a tarnished sugar bowl.
Moth wanted affection from her mother. She wanted to hold her mom’s hand, sit on her lap and kiss her cheeks like all little girls do but her mother pushed her away telling her: “…when you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough.” Moth said she didn’t mind because she loved her mom anyway.
The summer Moth turned twelve, her mother sold her to a woman named Mrs. Wentworth and shed no tears when she was taken by this woman as her mother wouldn’t stand for it. She always said: “American girls don’t whimper.” Moth took a seat in Mrs. Wentworth’s carriage but couldn’t see where they were going as all the curtains were closed. After a while the carriage rolled to a stop and all Mrs. Wentworth said was: “You’re to go right to bed…I want you rested for tomorrow.” As Moth was falling asleep in her new residence she whispered out loud into the room: “How much did you get for me, Mama”? What a sad thought to know that you’ve been ‘SOLD’ by your own mother!
Mrs. Wentworth began whipping Moth’s wrists on the soft side of her arms leaving bruises the colour of a rainbow. She then began slapping her across the face for the smallest of infractions. She was jealous of Moth’s beauty and she was out to destroy that beauty. Moth suffered so much pain for such a young girl.
Can you imagine growing up poor, living in a filthy dirty tenement, your mother is a Gypsy fortune-teller, you have hardly any food and then you’re sold by the very woman who gave birth to you!
I was immediately drawn in by this story, I was mesmerized and could picture in mind’s eye the brothel, the rooms and could actually “feel” Moth’s embarrassment at having to undress for the men. I was so attuned to Moth’s psyche that I could feel what she felt and shared her heartbreak and pain at every turn and that makes for some very good writing. To enable a reader to get into the mind of the character is no easy feat but Ms. McKay pulls it off without a hitch.
The book definitely lived up to long wait and I’d highly recommend it to everyone and plan on keeping this as part of my permanent collection.