Book Review — The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
published November 7, 2011 in The Peak: Student Newspaper of Simon Fraser University
Ami McKay puts a plucky protagonist in 1800s Manhattan for a solid sophomore release
Following the success of her first novel, The Birth House, Ami McKay spins the tale of Moth in The Virgin Cure. Moth is born in lower Manhattan to a slum-house mystic in the late 1800s. Only 12 years old, her mother sells Moth as a companion to a rich old lady who beats and abuses her. Moth eventually runs away and soon discovers her mother has moved away. With nowhere else to go, she ends up the The Bowery—the eastern slum bordering Five Points — with common thieves, beggars, freak-show performers, and prostitutes. Moth is quickly recruited for The Infant School, a finishing-school-cum-brothel run by Miss Everett and attended by Dr. Sadie. The Infant School caters to men interested in young, willing girls—particularly clean virgins such as Moth. Many of these clients believe in ‘the virgin cure’, that having sex with a virgin can heal syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The Virgin Cure is Moth’s story as told to Dr. Sadie, who is loosely based on McKay’s own great-great-grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, one of the first female doctors in New York. McKay was researching her family when she read historical accounts of children living on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the ‘lady doctors’ who were committed to treating them. McKay was similarly inspired to write The Birth House after discovering a local midwife used to live in their home in Nova Scotia.
The strong-willed female protagonist draws you into The Virgin Cure completely, even when the character seems to have little control over her fate. The historically based tale paired with scads of research has set McKay apart from other women’s fiction. While the focus is on a female character, and it’s not an action-packed thriller, this is not chick-lit.
McKay’s research has paid off and the imagery and atmosphere she evokes of 19th century New York is incredible. Her flawless depiction of the resilience of the citizens of The Bowery despite the public squalor and depressing poverty gives the story a kind of magnetism. There is also something strangely alluring about the slums of old New York, 1800s’ brothels, and a story based on historical truths.