Published by Doubleday
Publication date: January 7th 2014
I know a man who had a colossal stone mansion dismantled to be taken by sea from New York to California, with every block labeled and numbered so that the house could be reassembled at its destination. Whenever in my life I have moved a great distance to a new place and new circumstances, I have felt like that house. I seem to have spent some time in pieces, waiting for certain parts to arrive by separate ships or trains, and some pieces never come and are lost to me forever. But gradually I am put together; I remember who I am, what I need, and what I must do to take care of myself.
Belle Cora: A Novelis a big, grand sweeping tale that covers a multitude of themes, many of which could be explored by a reviewer for days. Even a synopsis of this novel could get lengthy (I know, I started one and gave up) but it wouldn’t do justice to the work behind this saga by Phillip Margulies. The novel is set in the mid-1800s to early 1900s and is told by Arabella Godwin, a woman who goes from being the daughter of a wealthy man in NYC to the madam of a house of ill repute in San Francisco. In between she lives a life of rural poverty, works in a clothing mill, marries a preacher, and sails around Cape Horn.
Through Margulies, Arabella is written as a real woman. One who, within in her own being, is true to a strict ethical code. She does not choose a life of prostitution but comes and goes to it out of necessity. She knows exactly what she is and makes no effort to hide it even when the times dictate that she should renounce her career to save her own skin. Instead, she uses her trade to forge connections, extract promises and exert influence when she needs it. While for some Belle is not a woman to be admired I found her to be strong, intelligent, and fiercely loyal. Her sense of style and humor made her even more interesting.
I lived among people who had special ideas of right and wrong, and what deserved admiration or contempt. Their views were such to make a whore’s life tolerable, and I accepted them as simply as I would have wrapped a blanket around me if I were cold. I became as changed a person as the possession of such opinions could make me.
In the same way that Margulies creates a woman of many layers, he re-creates the world around her. Through his careful research we experience the poor rural areas of upstate New York where a religious sect predicted the end of the world in 1844. We travel by sea down around Cape Horn with an assortment of passengers from around the world. When Arabella lands in San Francisco we get to experience the first iteration of what will be a magnificent city but is now only a muddy mess populated with violent men and few women living in tents with trenches for bathrooms. A true frontier, this San Francisco will burn to the ground and rebuild numerous times in its pursuit of gold.
Belle Cora is not an introspective book. Arabella is a pragmatic woman who takes the highs and lows of life in stride and wastes little time in thinking about what might have been or could be. Even her lifelong love for a man whose nature is the antithesis of hers does not stop her from living her life without him when she must. Pathos, recrimination? No, not for Arabella. She wins, she loses but she lives. Right off the page, she lives.