"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, a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth's father smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from her forever. The summer she turned twelve, her mother sold her as a servant to a wealthy woman, with no intention of ever seeing her again.
These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks and prostitutes, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as "The Infant School." Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her, where her new friends are falling prey to the myth of the "virgin cure" - that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted. She knows the law will not protect her, that polite society ignores her, and still she dreams 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.
While much of my description of the book and the information in this review may seem dark or heavy, The Virgin Cure is to be commended for addressing a difficult subject with humanity and in a way that is very accessible to readers. This story is full of life, and the will of a young girl to find a better way in the world than the one she knows is so strong on every page. McKay doesn't make Moth's journey easy, and that is to her credit. Moth must travel the path set out from her birth. That she does so wisely and with her eyes open - despite enduring pain, loss, and sadness - makes the experience of reading The Virgin Cure so much more real. Moth will take up space in your heart, and you will thank McKay for the gift of this story. (Reviewed by Jennifer Dawson Oakes).
McKay's harsh yet hopeful second novel... explores how women's lives were shaped by their socioeconomic status in the bleak tenements of 1870s lower Manhattan.
Very low-key, but rewarding for patient readers.
McKay captures the era's atmosphere in such crisply rendered details... Thought provoking and beautifully rendered.
The Gazette (Canada)
McKay is clearly a talented writer with a subtle sense of story, one that readers will look forward to hearing from, again and again.
The Walrus (Canada)
Finely crafted and remarkably researched... While set in the past, the book informs the modern dialogue on feminism, the sex trade, and choice.
Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)
A worthy follow up to... The Birth House... Character, setting, mood and plot are melded naturally to create a Dickensian world of deprivation and determination.
National Post (Canada)
A powerful novel, rooted in the same elements that made The Birth House both critically lauded and a bestseller... One of McKay's gifts and skills as a writer is her ability to utterly immerse the reader in her fictional world... A powerful, affecting novel.
Fans of McKay's bestselling novel The Birth House are going to love The Virgin Cure... McKay's vivid prose can trigger in readers the taste of a hot bowl of oyster stew, the reek of Chrystie Street tenement houses and the sound of a taffeta skirt's hem brushing the floor of a concert saloon... It's difficult not to swiftly turn the pages of The Virgin Cure.
The Vancouver Sun (Canada)
A lovely novel, written in a style that is both clean and subtle. McKay's voices are true; her characters sympathetic... I'm certain readers will take to The Virgin Cure just as they did The Birth House.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Diane S. The Virgin Cure In 1870 over thirty thousand children lived on the streets in New York, and at the age of twelve Moth, the main character becomes one such child, if only for a short time. Had no idea the numbers were so large and that what happened to these... Read More
As Ami McKay notes in the afterword of The Virgin Cure: "In 1870, there were over thirty thousand children living on the streets of New York and many more who wandered in and out of cellars and tenements as their families struggled to scrape together enough income to put food on the table."
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