While no one really loved the book, many of us liked it enough to consider reading Ami McKay’s highly successful debut novel, The Birth House, and the third in the series, to be released at a later date.
The Virgin Cure was inspired by McKay’s great-great grandmother, Dr. Sadie Fonda Macintosh, who practiced street medicine in the slums. McKay had intended to write the book in her grandmother’s voice, but while writing, she began to hear the words of a very different character, a twelve year old girl named Moth.
Moth’s opening line is a riveting one: “Mama sold me the summer I turned twelve.” Her fortune-telling mother had run out of ways to keep afloat in the slums of 19th century Manhattan. So, she sold Moth for an undisclosed price to a wealthy sadistic woman named Mrs. Wentworth. Brutally beaten and frightened, Moth manages to escape, but when she returns home, she discovers that her mother has mysteriously disappeared.
Homeless and at risk, she finds refuge in a home for higher class prostitutes. There, she finds life as an “almost whore” tolerable. She makes friends with the other young women in the home and meets the remarkable Dr. Sadie who is concerned with the plight of these child sex workers.
When Dr. Sadie enters the picture, point of view alternates between Moth and the doctor. I found these viewpoint changes very abrupt and I would have enjoyed reading more about Dr. Sadie’s story. What drove a wealthy woman to leave her family and spend her time among the poor and disadvantaged? McKay could easily have devoted entire chapters to the doctor and provided us with more insight into her motivation.
Many of us expected to read more about the virgin cure. McKay describes this particular cure sought by infected men who believed they could be cured by having sex with a virgin, but it is not the real focus of this book.
McKay’s research skills are impeccable. She has provided more than enough details to create a strong sense of place and further enhanced the narrative with snippets of news and trivia from the time period.