Every time Mrs. Wentworth came at me, I thought of Mama. [...] But Mama could never know. I was tied to Mrs. Wentworth now. The wage they had agreed upon was meant to keep Mama alive. If I ran away, I feared Mrs. Wentworth would come after Mama. She'd be left with nothing - no clothes to wear, no place to sleep, no food in her belly. My bruises were a small price to pay.
Twelve-year old Moth was born into the poorest of the slums in 1870s New York, to a fortune-telling mother and a father who abandoned them when she was three. Named Moth by her father because a tree told him to do so, Moth was sold into servitude by her mother in exchange for a fortune. Despite her attempts to blend into the new household, she ends up detesting the lady of the house - so much that she was willing to risk thieving to escape. And then begins a new life for Moth - at the infant school, where virgin girls are taught how to charm and seduce a man until eventually their virginity is sold. On the plus side, Moth gets food, security and a place to sleep - things that she didn't have easy access to previously. It is in this place that Moth learns her way around and finds out the tremendous price to pay for her independence.
From the time I started reading book reviews, one book had always stood out as a solid favorite among many readers - Ami McKay's The Birth House. Unfortunately I still haven't read it, but I can finally say that I understand what everyone is talking about. McKay's second book, The Virgin Cure is purely magnificent. I can guess that this one is definitely going to have a place in my top 5 for this year. Despite reading and feeling pulled towards a lot of literary fiction books, I usually find something to complain about in each book - mostly about the characters or their actions. Even though there is one aspect of The Virgin Cure that did bug me, that was more a matter of stylistic choice. Everything else about this book scored huge brownie points with me.
As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Both had the same concept of training virgin girls to hold a man's attention and seduce him, until eventually her virginity is sold, after which she can do whatever she wished with her life. The men who participated in these customs were usually well-off and married. Reading about these infant schools led to conflicting reactions in me. On the one hand, these girls were being exploited. But on the other, they were enjoying a freedom they have never known and would probably never know had they remained in the slum dwellings they were born in.
In the end, I found this book immensely satisfying and unputdownable! I usually like to read literary fiction in sessions, but this one was a little hard to ignore. I also don't usually read much historical fiction, but New York in the 1870s turned out to be very intriguing and tremendously different from the New York I see now. I did feel that the language of the book was more modern than what suited the times, that sometimes I had to remind myself that this was happening more than a century ago. I'm not sure how New Yorkers talked then, but I doubt it is the same English that we use now. I'm now looking forward to reading McKay's debut book.
I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.