There was a time when virgin women were considered the cure for a man who was afflicted with syphilis or “the pox”. It was an unfortunate myth that put many innocent young ladies at risk for their own health and lives. The Virgin Cure is set during that period in history (1871 New York), where we are introduced to Moth Fenwick. She lives with her mother, who seems to be making a living from fortune telling. When we meet Moth (an only child and fatherless), she is twelve and on the verge of being given away for a price. We get the feeling that there is no love lost on her mother’s part, but Moth imagines that she will one day return home.
From the clutches of cruel Mrs. Wentworth, where she must do every last bidding of the jealous woman, to the brothel she finds herself in (owned by Miss Emma Everett)—Moth’s character and spirit are tested. When she starts out in the Wentworth household, she establishes a friendship with Nestor, the butler but after a few weeks, she is too scared to stay much longer attending to the evil woman’s demands. She plans an escape with Nestor’s help but when she finally returns home, her mother is gone. A girl named Mae O’Rourke comes to her aid when she is being accosted by a stranger in the alley, and introduces her to Miss Everett’s place (known as a popular brothel). Although the accepted age for taking girls in is over fourteen, Mae lies and tells Miss Everett that Moth is older than she looks. Even if it seems Mae is being helpful, she has her own agenda for doing this. It is here that new friendships are formed between Moth (who later changes her name to Ada) and other young ladies at the establishment, as well as a relationship that develops between her and Dr. Sadie (who comes to check on the women every week). Miss Everett makes it clear that she wants all men who are paying for pleasure from her girls to be clean—but there is always the risk of contracting a disease anyway.
Moth also gets hired by Mr. Dink to do a job on the side, selling cards to wealthy men. It is here that she meets Mr. Wentworth for the first time—she has never seen him when she was working for Mrs. Wentworth (she recognizes the striking similarity between the portrait and the real man). Being a virgin, she is trained how to be seductive at the brothel and achieve Miss Everett’s goal of getting the highest price from a wealthy man who will spend a night with her. Does Ada get in too high over her head? Will she be the virgin cure for someone?
I got sucked into this world and wanted to know what would happen to all the characters. I was especially interested to know how things would fare for Moth regarding her crush on Cadet, her first night with Mr. Wentworth and her trust in Dr. Sadie. Dr. Sadie’s side of the story is also narrated through some notes written along the margins of the pages in the novel, in addition to her thoughts throughout the book. Some people found the side notes distracting but I enjoyed learning about the few tidbits that give some historical and factual information.
So many titles came to mind while I read this. Different parts of the story made me think about other books that went through similar things. For instance, when Moth is at Mrs. Wentworth’s house, the relationship there brought back scenes from Eva Stachniak’s, The Winter Palace. When Moth ends up in a brothel, it reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Moth’s relationship with Dr. Sadie called to mind a friendship shared between a younger woman and an older woman in Tracy Chevalier’s, Remarkable Creatures. The part with Mr. Dink and the Palace of Illusions, made me recall The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The moments with Dr. Sadie reminded me of Claire Holden Rothman’s, The Heart Specialist because it is also about a female doctor in a similar time period, who has had to sacrifice personal relationships for her work and the medical field.
I love historical novels which focus on women’s lives and relationships, as well as just historical fiction in general. If you have read this book, I’d like to know your opinion!
Ami McKay was actually at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, exactly a year ago, for a visit. Did anyone get to meet her?
Hope you enjoyed her latest story and in the meantime, be on the look-out for next month’s title, The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard.