I’ve finished yet another novel, and it only took me this long to finish it because of my recent trip to Québec City. If it wasn’t for days that I spent wandering around and travelling, I would’ve completed this book inside of two weeks, and that’s with working full time. I found that I was able to get through the story of The Virgin Cure very quickly because it was extremely easy and enjoyable to read. Although I would describe it as kind of an average book and nothing overly spectacular or memorable, I did find myself getting sucked into the story.
The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay follows a short time in the life of twelve-year-old Moth. Moth lives in New York City in the 19th century, and her life is full of toil and struggle because of her poor status and her mother’s lack of affection for her. Moth is sold as a maid to a wealthy woman who abuses her, she lives on the street and begs for a time, and then she becomes a “girl” at Miss Everett’s whorehouse. The novel traces Moth’s move from one horrible situation to the next, and the reader watches as Moth must make decisions that will both define and destroy her.
I had been wanting to read this novel for some time, and finally was able to purchase it at a used book sale. It sat on my shelf for almost a year though because I didn’t feel the urge to get into the story right away. The premise interested me and I thought it would be fascinating to learn more about the 19th century in the United States, but I hadn’t heard anything about Ami McKay or her works, so I left the book for awhile and really only picked it up a few weeks ago because it was one of the last things sitting in my room, unread.
I do have to say that Ami McKay is a skilled writer. She made me care for Moth, particularly in the latter half of the story, and I found her style easy to follow and smooth. McKay does infuse The Virgin Cure with a touch of the Victorian style, but she also doesn’t weigh the plot down with too many detailed and unnecessary descriptions. Her attention to Moth’s narrative is quite focused, for the most part (more on that in a moment), and she does try to use other narrative voices throughout the novel by including fictional newspaper clippings and entries from the diary of Dr. Sadie, one of few female doctors in New York, who becomes fond of Moth. It turns out that this Dr. Sadie was Ami McKay’s great-great-grandmother, and so she does seem to have a thorough knowledge of the time period she writes about and her characters.
However, my one criticism of the novel is that many of the alternative narratives presented in the story seem to be very randomly placed and not coherently curated. For example, one of the newspaper clippings discusses the legend of a pear tree that used to stand in New York, but the significance of this tree to the main story isn’t fully revealed until much later in the plot. I felt that the inclusion of the newspaper clipping was smart and very interesting, but I don’t think it was properly placed in that it introduced a secondary story to the reader at a moment that seemed very random. I wouldn’t necessarily have placed this clipping right next to references to the pear tree in Moth’s own narrative, but I might’ve rather collected all of the newspaper clippings at the end of the story, as a sort of Appendix, or at the beginning of the story. If the clippings were placed at the beginning of the story, for example, the reader could collect all of these secondary sources and then apply them to Moth’s narrative and build on the threads they’ve collected in a more efficient and cohesive manner.
I also felt that many of Dr. Sadie’s notes/sidebars in the novel were random as well. Sometimes I truly struggled to understand why Dr. Sadie was providing the reader with details about a patient or medical research or certain fashions and trends at moments in the story when Moth seemed to be talking of things that were wholly unrelated. A lot of my misunderstanding could be due to the fact that I had no idea when in my reading of a particular page I was supposed to move to reading the sidebar. Often I would read one paragraph, come to where the sidebar began, read it, and then realize the incident or item mentioned in the sidebar didn’t appear until the very end of the page. This made my reading experience a tad disjointed and disorganized, and I feel Dr. Sadie’s comments may’ve been better suited to footnotes on each page, with numbers corresponding to the point in Moth’s narrative when the notes should be read (as boring and academic as that may seem).
In a similar manner, I felt that the introduction of the idea of the “virgin cure” (men with various diseases having sexual relations with virgin girls in an attempt to cure themselves of their maladies) was added almost gratuitously to the plot. Although the notion of the virgin cure was mentioned a few times, it was never something that Moth personally faced or dealt with in any manner. Even when her friend at Miss Everett’s house is sexually assaulted and used as a virgin cure, the incident is dealt with in the space of a chapter, and Moth is never herself plagued by the burden of the virgin cure or threatened by its existence. I think the novel was, therefore, wrongly named, as it was the story of Moth, not so much the prevalence or outrageousness of the virgin cure idea itself.
Overall, The Virgin Cure was touching and sad at times, but also entertaining – however, as I said before, it was mostly average. While I did feel outraged at times when I read about what Moth endured, I don’t know that she’ll ever be a character who stands out or is memorable to me. The story was very interesting and in some moments was exceedingly captivating, but I unfortunately think that it wasn’t remarkable enough to stand out for me as a true favourite over time.
I would recommend it though for those who are interested in New York, in the history of this famous city throughout different eras, and in the medical advances and struggles that occurred in the 19th century.
❥ ❥ ❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart