Summary and book reviews of Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies

Belle Cora

A Novel

by Phillip Margulies

Belle Cora
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    Readers' Opinion:

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Book Summary

A sweeping historical novel based on the extraordinary life and times of Belle Cora, the daughter of a New York merchant who went on to become a millworker, a prostitute, a notorious madam, a murderess, and eventually one of San Francisco's richest and most revered dowagers.

Some people remember her as Arabella Godwin, others as Harriet Knowles, and still more as Frances Andersen or other names too numerous to list. But let there be no confusion, this is the legendary story of Belle Cora (1828-1919), who survived by her wits and made a fortune off the greed and lust of men.

Orphaned at age nine, Belle and her brother, Lewis, are sent to live with their devoutly religious aunt and uncle in rural upstate New York. Nothing can prepare her for the cruelty of her watchful, jealous cousin Agnes, who would become a lifelong rival and enemy. Yet there, Belle also meets the love of her life, Jeptha Talbot. As she blossoms into a true beauty, however, two horrendous events separate her from Jeptha and Lewis. Heartbroken, Belle flees the countryside and finds work in a mill, where she is exposed to the looser morals of hard luck women and begins to harden into the powerful, cunning woman she will become.

Soon Belle finds herself in New York, where life takes a dark but alluring turn as she succumbs to the indulgent lifestyle of a highly sought-after prostitute to the city's wealthiest men. But beneath the silk and taffeta layers, she harbors a deep longing to be reunited with Jeptha, now a respected preacher. The road back to him will take her on a treacherous journey from the town houses of Manhattan to the dusty streets of San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush. It's a road of good intentions, but paved with secrets and lies on which the conniving, sometimes ruthless Belle must transform herself again and again to get what she wants.

This is the spellbinding story of the devious exploits of a singular woman ahead of her time. Be prepared to be swept away by Belle Cora.

Belle Cora

Book One

(1828)

I

There is a story about a girl who took the wrong path, and rues it all her life. She is too trusting.  She is too passionate. The result: an error than can't be corrected, a stain that can't be washed out. Back on the old homestead where she grew up no one is permitted to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall. 

Gentlemen love this story, so when any girl in a house of mine lacked some version of it I would help her to make one up. I'd take her to a good restaurant at a quiet time of day, order something very expensive and tell her, "You were an Ohio farm girl, and to help your folks out with the bank loan you went to work in a mill.  The mill agent's son noticed you.  He was very handsome.  That was your downfall."

Or I'd begin, "You're from a fine old Baltimore family. Your father was a good man, except, he was a bit reckless: he gambled; he was killed in a duel."

And so on. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What role do the forward and the introduction play in Belle Cora?

  2. Why do you think the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 prompted Belle to tell her life's story?

  3. Belle mentions that the book's purpose is not to instruct others on how to live, and insists that her sole purpose is "to   tell what happened."  Based on the rest of the novel, is she as indifferent to morality as she pretends?

  4. In Belle's introduction Belle calls Harriet Atherton, mother of the feeble-minded Jennifer "my old enemy, the good Christian woman."  Yet Belle's mother was also a good Christian woman who would never have approved of the way Belle has lived her ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. Belle Cora is a grand novel in every sense of the word. It will appeal to historical fiction and literary fiction fans alike.   (Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker).

Full Review Members Only (627 words).

Media Reviews

Library Journal

The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era.

Kirkus Reviews

A convincing melodrama in which the victim takes charge.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Belle's remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life.

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Beyond the Book

Millerism

Belle's aunt and uncle followed the preachings of William Miller, a New York farmer and the founder of Millerism. They believed Miller's prophecy that Jesus would return to earth in 1844.

William Miller Miller's idea was not profound — or original. The notion of the Second Coming is a core tenet of Christianity. Though the idea is central, the interpretation and definition of the Second Coming has not always been agreed upon by Church leaders and theologians. The early Christians read much of the Bible, including the Book of Revelations' prophecy about Jesus's return, as allegorical, an interpretation that dominated Christian thinking until the Protestant Reformation. The Protestants, however, believed that the prophecies were literal. For ...

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