BookBrowse Reviews Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Belle Cora

A Novel

by Phillip Margulies

Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 608 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2014, 608 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Fans of sweeping historical fiction will find much to love in this debut novel that travels across time and place with a strong female protagonist at its helm.

Resonant of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara and Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg, Phillip Margulies's Belle Cora is a fascinating, scene-stealing protagonist, and his eponymous debut novel, a sweeping historical epic. Opening in 1820s New York, the story spans decades and states, as the narrative follows Belle's maturation from naive daughter of religious zealots to sought-after madam of San Francisco's foremost brothel.

Born into a family of austere New England Puritans, Belle learns early the value of self-reliance. When her beloved mother dies of tuberculosis, she and her brother Louis are removed to upstate New York to live with hardscrabble, devoutly religious relatives. The austerity of their earlier childhood is replaced by borderline abuse, as Belle and Louis's aunt and uncle try to transform them from privileged city dwellers to hardworking, devout farm people. The efforts backfire, and the siblings chart rebellious paths to maintain their sense of selves. For Belle, this path includes Jeptha, the intelligent son of a drunkard neighbor, who falls in love with her at first glance. Unfortunately, Agnes, Belle's cousin and daughter of Belle's despised aunt and uncle, has already claimed Jeptha for her own. Agnes' desire for control of Jeptha and her absolute hatred of Belle pit the girls as enemies, a rivalry that will have dire consequences for Belle.

Though Belle's exposure to these devout, sedulous relatives should have instilled in her the value of a moral life, it has the opposite effect. She learns duplicity, manipulation and self-reliance, rather than the importance of family, community, and personal virtue. However, Belle's childhood is not completely bereft of happiness. The ties she has with her brother Louis are long-lasting, and it is the relationship with Jeptha that is the most formative of her life. In fact, her love for Jeptha and her desire to be independent are the two forces that most shape her adulthood. Despite Belle's best efforts, however, these forces are rarely in communion.

Told from Belle's perspective as an older woman, this novel, over 500 pages long, masquerades as her memoir. Belle is captivating, not only because of her unique adventures, but because of her opinions of them. Her honest appraisal of her actions and circumstances reveals a keen, practical mind. Unfortunately, her savviness is misplaced in a world requiring women to be modest, humble helpmates. In contemporary times, Belle would have run a company. In the mid-19th century, she had fewer options. Though prostitution is an unsavory choice, it provides access to the type of life Belle desperately seeks, one of independence and freedom. Ultimately, and in an ironic turn that is not lost on Belle, prostitution provides her more self-respect than the life she spent with her devout relatives.

Complementing Belle's search for independence are the compelling historical details of mid-19th century America. Margulies' depiction of New York slums and San Francisco's gold rush excitement are transportive. Though Belle's journey from Puritan New England to wealthy San Francisco is specific to her, the general path she charts of East coast austerity to Western boomtime reads like a metaphor for American expansion. As Belle leaves New England behind to achieve wealth and freedom in San Francisco, her story mirrors that of many other Americans who have sought better lives by moving West. Indeed, Belle's rags-to-riches story, added to her migration West, echoes the quests of other great American novels, in which characters move location or improve their financial standing to find better lives. In a general, but significantly related way, Gatsby (from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) and Huck (from Mark Twain's Huck Finn) made the same trek.

Belle Cora is a grand novel in every sense of the word. It will appeal to historical fiction and literary fiction fans alike.

This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Millerism

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: If We Were Villains
    If We Were Villains
    by M L. Rio
    22 out of 28 of our reviewers rated If We Were Villains four or five stars, giving it an overall ...
  • Book Jacket: The Islamic Enlightenment
    The Islamic Enlightenment
    by Christopher de Bellaigue
    In this comprehensive and well-researched history, de Bellaigue examines the evolution of Islamic ...
  • Book Jacket: The Leavers
    The Leavers
    by Lisa Ko
    The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

A richly layered novel of hearts broken seemingly beyond repair and then bound by a stunning act of human devotion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Scribe of Siena
    by Melodie Winawer

    Equal parts transporting love story, meticulously researched historical fiction, and compelling time-travel narrative.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Chalk Pit

The Chalk Pit:
A Ruth Galloway Mystery

A string of murders takes Ruth underground in the newest book in the series.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T W Don't M A R

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
Modal popup -