For some reason, I am always drawn to stories about brothels in the 1800s. There is just something so interesting about the way women lived and the double life men engaged in just to be near them. In Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard, prostitutes were tough women, boyish, rugged and vulgar. Amy McKay’s “near-whores” were much different.
I knew I had to read The Virgin Cure as soon as I read the synopsis. “The Virgin Cure” was the belief that men with sexual diseases could cleanse themselves by deflowering a virgin. Scarily enough, this is still believed in some cultures. Girls as young as twelve years old were taken off the streets and made into the most elegant of ladies to be sold off to the highest bidding gentlemen for sex or raped by vicious and selfish men in dark alleys as they went to and from their theatre shows. Ami McKay’s narrator, Moth, becomes one such girl.
After being sold off to a wicked wench of an aristocratic woman, Moth is tortured daily simply for being an attractive young girl. When she finally runs away, her fate is sealed by allowing herself to be taken to Miss. Everett’s home, where girls are raised to be “near-whores” — high-end and respectable girls who are lavished by their male suitors. Miss Everett promises luxury and safety to her girls in exchange for their virginity and continued services to men who pay a pretty penny.
One woman stands in the way of Moth’s lost innocence: a beautiful and kind-hearted doctor who has devoted her time to caring for the street kids, prostitutes and “freaks” who work for Mr. Dink’s, a museum of fascinating talent. Dr. Sadie is modeled after McKay’s own great-great grandmother who did exactly that.
I fell in love with Dr. Sadie. I smiled through every scene she entered and found her to be my favourite part of the entire book. Her heart of gold glistened on each page and I could just picture the trunk at the end of her bed, holding all of her memories, dresses and dreams. Dr. Sadie refuses to let Moth give herself to the highest bidder and will do anything she can to stop her from being the next ruined woman.
McKay’s writing is beautiful, and I found myself marking pages to come back and re-read. (I thought of adding in a few here, but you’ll just have to go see them for yourself!) This book was an absolute gem: hard to read at some points, raw, delicate and beautiful all at once. You have never seen the dark streets of New York quite like this. Ami McKay is a wondrous writer!