Published by Knopf Canada
Publication date: October 25th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Historical
The late 1800s have long provided fodder for historical fiction authors given that the time was rife with conflicting social mores, a wide economic divide, and the yet undefined role of women beyond marriage. In the style of Slammerkin and The Crimson Petal and the White, Ami McKay explores the dismal world and limited life choices of a young girl named Moth in her newest book The Virgin Cure. The title is a reference to the insane belief still held by men in many cultures—sex with a virgin can cure sexually transmitted diseases.
With no father and a mother who tells fortunes for a living and drinks her profits Moth lives a life of desperate poverty in the lower streets of New York City. At the age of twelve, when her mother sells her to a woman to be a lady’s maid, Moth hopes her life is looking up. Sadly, the woman turns out to be vicious and cruel and Moth runs away back to her mother’s house, only to find she has gone. She begins a life of begging and living on top of the tenement house where she used to live until she is saved by a young woman, beautifully clothed and coiffed, who offers Moth a new life.
The notion that I was meant for something far beyond the slums had set up shop in my brain somewhere around the same time my heart started to beat. My life held great promise, I was sure of it, but finding my way there was another matter altogether.
Moth joins Mae and two other young women as escorts-in-training at Miss Everett’s house where a very high clientele is willing to pay for the charms and attention of young, unspoiled girls. Unfortunately, twelve is too young and so Moth pretends to be fifteen and has her name changed to the more appealing Ada. She goes from sleeping on bricks and eating garbage to a feather bed, a warm bath every day, all new clothes made just for her and as much food as she can eat. Small wonder that the amorphous notion of “being with a man” seems like a pittance to pay for a life of such riches.
The Virgin Cure follows a fairly predictable path of tragedy and triumph for Moth. She sees the absolute worst of life but thanks to a few wise companions ends up rising above her situation without selling her soul. The book is interesting enough with thoughtful details and reads quickly but McKay has a disconcerting propensity for sidebars relating to miscellaneous information from the period. These give the book a textbook feel and distract from the story; an odd compilation of fact and fiction which ought to have been otherwise integrated. Not a bad book but, by no means, as compelling or engrossing as either of the two similar titles mentioned above.