The Virgin Cure

The Virgin Cure

A Novel

Book - 2012
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Set on the streets of Lower Manhattan in 1871, The Virgin Cure is the story of Moth, a girl abandoned by her father and raised by a mother telling fortunes to the city's desperate women. One summer night, twelve-year-old Moth is pulled from her bed and sold as a servant to a finely dressed woman. It is this betrayal suffered at the hands of her own mother that changes her life forever.
Publisher: New York : Harper, [2012], ©2012
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780061140327
Branch Call Number: FICTION McK
Description: 319 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


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CRRL_JohnGaines May 04, 2018

Set on the streets of Lower Manhattan in 1871, The Virgin Cure is the story of Moth, a girl abandoned by her father and raised by a mother telling fortunes to the city's desperate women. One summer night, twelve-year-old Moth is pulled from her bed and sold as a servant to a finely dressed woman.... Read More »

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Aug 25, 2018

I love the historical references and the gripping story line. I really appreciate how Ami McKay takes something as horrific as the virgin cure, and treats it in a way that doesn't traumatize the reader, and yet, doesn't make light of the topic. A difficult line, walked beautifully.

Apr 29, 2018

Moth is a pretty young girl raised in poverty in the old New York City slums during the late 1800s. She learns that she'll do just about anything to survive. During the story, Moth meets a number of unsavory characters who are looking to exploit a young pretty girl. The story is interesting and I enjoyed learning more about the early history of New York City.

Apr 20, 2017

This book was all over the place, and none of the details seemed to have anything to do with each other. In post-Civil War New York, Moth is raised by her fortune teller mother. She is then forced to be a lady’s maid for a very cruel woman. Then she escapes only to find herself in a very specialized brothel. From there she is employed at a circus and befriends a female doctor. Moth isn’t a particularly well-drawn or interesting character. I finished this book wondering what the point of it was.

Mar 20, 2015

A bit slow for my taste but overall, a decent book.

Feb 08, 2014

An easy read and interesting story of how an abandoned young girl finds herself on the road to becoming a prostitute. An often told story but with the observations of Doctor Sadie a more interesting one that most.

Feb 01, 2014

This book covers well documented territory and is far too predictable.

jdaigle3 May 06, 2013

I now see why this has been such a popular read for book clubs, as there is plenty to discuss about this one! It was certainly an interesting read. The road to oldest profession in the world, what makes a girl end up choosing it, how they might be able to get out of it, and the generosity of those they hopefully will encounter along the way. I just wish you learned more about Dr. Sadie and what happened to poor Alice.

Feb 11, 2013

I kept reading on to see what would happen to the main character Moth. It was interesting to read about a different part of society in a historical perspective. I did not really appreciate the poetry and the extra information in the margins. I found the ending realistic for this character but was hoping for more in its conclusion.

Jan 17, 2013

The Virgin Cure is a historical novel set in the lower East side of late 19th-century New York City. It's narrated by Ada "Moth" Fenwick, an 11- or 12-year-old girl trying to survive after her mother sells her to be a rich woman's personal servant. Moth and her family come from the ranks of the unemployed, and the novel does an excellent job of portraying life in a city that just didn't have the resources or the interest to look after its poorest citizens. After some tough times, including resorting to petty thievery, Moth is taken in by a Madam who runs a brothel that specializes in virgins. The book's title comes from the belief among many men with a variety of sexually-transmitted diseases that having sex with a virgin will cure them. The Madam finds and trains young girls, typically orphans and run-aways, in the 19th-century art of seduction, so they can be sold to the highest bidder. If the girl is lucky, she'll become a kept woman, with her own hotel suite and plenty of clothes and food and nights at the theatre with her lover (almost always a wealthy married man).

Moth's voice is consistent throughout the story and matter-of-fact. She takes New York as it is, neither criticizing the lack of support nor mythologizing the poor as noble sufferers. The story is rather bleak, but lightened by a large cast of characters doing their best to make a living amid the squalor and disease. I found the ending was a bit too neat and tidy, but otherwise it's a well-written story that showed me a time and place that I knew little about.

Dec 31, 2012

Ami McKay has a talent for taking depressing topics and not making the reader miserable while telling a story. I enjoy that she chooses to write about atypical women in historical settings. I prefered the Birth House, but it is one of my favourite books of all time. This is a strong follow up. I read it practically straight through.

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Mar 13, 2012

Following in the footsteps of The Birth House , her powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!) "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 his wife and daughter forever, and Moth has never stopped imagining that one day they may be reunited -- despite knowing in her heart what he chose over them. Her hard mother is barely making a living with her fortune-telling, sometimes for well-heeled clients, yet Moth is all too aware of how she really pays the rent. Life would be so much better, Moth knows, if fortune had gone the other way - if only she'd had the luxury of a good family and some station in life. The young Moth spends her days wandering the streets of her own and better neighbourhoods, imagining what days are like for the wealthy women whose grand yet forbidding gardens she slips through when no one's looking. Yet every night Moth must return to the disease- and grief-ridden tenements she calls home. The summer Moth turns twelve, her mother puts a halt to her explorations by selling her boots to a local vendor, convinced that Moth was planning to run away. Wanting to make the most of her every asset, she also sells Moth to a wealthy woman as a servant, 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, but also a locale frequented by New York's social elite. Their patronage supports the shadowy undersphere, where businesses can flourish if they truly understand the importance of wealth and social standing - and of keeping secrets. In that world Moth meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as an "infant school." There Moth finds the orderly solace she has always wanted, and begins to imagine herself embarking upon a new path. Yet salvation does not come without its price: 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. That's not the worst of the situation, though. In a time and place where mysterious illnesses ravage those who haven't been cautious, no matter their social station, diseased men yearn for a "virgin cure" - thinking that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted. Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works to help young women like her, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her. Moth's new friends are falling prey to fates both expected and forced upon them, yet she knows the law will not protect her, and that polite society ignores her. 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.

branch_reviews Mar 05, 2012

Moth, abandoned by her father and raised by her hard-scrabble, fortune-telling mother, roams the mean streets of New York City in 1871 dreaming of a better life than that of the tenement slum where she lives. When she turns 12, her mother sells her as a servant to a wealthy, demanding –and, as Moth soon learns, brutally cruel – woman, Mrs. Wentworth. With the help of another servant, Moth breaks free only to land on the streets again, this time totally alone and homeless. A chance meeting leads to a tentative friendship with Dr. Sadie, a ground-breaking female physician who tends to the poor and desperate. McKay’s vivid descriptions make the novel come to life as the reader inhabits the bawdy Bowery district and filthy streets of NYC, as well as the sumptuous concert halls and brothels. Dr. Sadie is based on the author’s own great-great grandmother.
The title comes from the myth of the time that deflowering a virgin would cure a man of deadly syphilis. Sprinkled throughout the novel are snippets from newspapers, journals and periodicals of the era, providing a glimpse into the lives of both the privileged and the down-trodden.
Tags: historical fiction, Canadian
Reviewed by DC.

Jan 26, 2012

Moth, part Gypsy and born into abject poverty in 1871 Manhattan, so her prospects are dim. Still, the 12-year-old, given her name by her capricious and since-decamped father, shares a lumpy straw mattress in a tenement with her fortune-telling Mama and dreams of a life she glimpses through windows in the neighbourhoods north of Houston.

It’s not that Moth is blind to her fate – Mama hints broadly that their salvation hinges on Moth’s successful appointment as a maid to the wealthy – but Moth figures on 13. Thirteen, and she’ll find her own way. Mama, streetwise but self-indulgent, nursing a broken heart with bottles of Dr. Godfrey’s cordial, has other plans. One summer night, Moth is awakened and sold away.

There’s more than a shading of Dickensian cruelty in Moth’s stay at the Wentworth household, and she endures it with heartbreaking resolve to support her mother. When she finally escapes, her discovery that her mother has deserted their home is all the more harrowing. As in all good fairy tales, the orphaning marks the beginning of the real story: Lower Manhattan is the heart of darkness for a motherless girl of no means. “Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves,” she tells us. “The most valuable thing a girl possessed was hidden between her legs, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.”

On the mean streets, she sleeps on a rooftop in a barrel with mouldy burlap bags for warmth, begging pennies and fending off attacks from guttersnipes and lecherous men. You’ll feel the grime under your fingernails. Rats move inside Moth’s straw mattress, clods of horse dung fuel barrel fires, and she passes time guessing whether what’s squirming in garbage bins is rat, cat or baby. When the snow melts in spring, the streets of the slum run with “a vile slop of chicken innards, bits of wet newsprint and stale dung.” There are rag pickers, bloodsuckers, oyster stabbers and Dick the Ratter. McKay’s ability to make Moth’s slum experience visceral is testament to her meticulous research and storytelling prowess.

But if Moth is vulnerable, she is also wily. “It was inevitable that I should part with my innocence,” she says, having been recruited as a prostitute-in-training within days, “but at least under Miss Everett’s roof I hoped I might get a chance to give it up for a fair price.” At the Infant School, Miss Everett is madam to a handful of girls whose maidenheads she will sell at a premium to wealthy men. It’s worth noting that 18th-century slang for female genitalia included “commodity” and “Eve’s custom house,” but what has been most prized through the centuries is the unbroken hymen, long linked (unreliably) to a young woman’s purity.


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Aug 25, 2018

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Jan 26, 2012

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