The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

“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.

From the publisher, Knopf Canada

The Virgin Cure is Moth’s story but narrated by Dr. Sadie after-the-fact and Dr. Sadie occasionally includes notes in the margin regarding current customs or beliefs. Dr. Sadie is based Ami McKay’s own great-great-grandmother (Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh) who was one of the first graduates of The Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. McKay was researching her family history—trying to find out more about Dr. Mackintosh—when she encountered the stories of children living on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, and the “lady doctors” who were committed to treating them.

McKay’s depiction of strong-willed female protagonists draws me to her writing. Even when the character seems to have little control over her fate, she never betrays her true self. This attribute was evident in The Birth House—contender for Canada Reads 2011–and part of the reason I really enjoyed it. McKay brings that strength of character to both Moth and Dr. Sadie in different ways.

The pace of the novel is meandering, but not directionless, and I felt drawn to Moth and her story. There is something about the seedy depths of New York, the deviant nature of an 1800s brothel, and the allure of a story based on truths such as the “virgin cure”. I will definitely be passing this novel along to my friends and family to read—similar to what I did with The Birth House.

The Virgin Cure will be on sale on Tuesday, October 25, 2011.

Full disclosure: Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Canada (an imprint of Random House of Canada) for sending me an advanced reader’s copy.