With The Virgin Cure, the long-awaited follow-up to her best-selling 2006 debut, The Birth House, Ami McKay once again examines an element of the lives of girls and women history often ignores. This time, McKay veers away from life in rural Canada to give us a peek into the seedy sexual economy and violence underpinning New York City’s Gilded Age.
The year is 1871. Despite evidence of huge industrial and economic growth, New York’s underbelly seethes with abject poverty, violence, and disease. It is here we find 12-year-old Moth, abandoned by her deadbeat, skirt-chasing father and sold into servitude by her Gypsy mother.
The line between childhood and maturity is blurry at best, especially where sex and sexuality are concerned, and Moth trades her life as a battered maid for a short but potentially profitable stay at the Infant School, a brothel for “near-whores.” Under the patronage of Miss Everett, Moth and a handful of other young girls are coached to leverage their virginity for significant profit and a comfortable living. It’s better than selling it on the cheap or having it stolen, Moth thinks – that is, until she and her friends actually have to go through with the act. At this point, readers are given an uncomfortable reminder of how young and naive these baby courtesans really are, and how ugly and unfeeling the world becomes when human life is so debased.
As with her first novel, McKay packs The Virgin Cure to the brim with ephemera (silk walking suits, evening toilette, tear catchers, and Circassian hair oils), local legends, and wives’ tales (the title comes from the popular belief at the time that having sex with a virgin cured illness). Historical context is provided by way of newspaper clippings, period advertisements, excerpts from an 1870 guidebook for sex tourists called A Gentleman’s Companion to New York City, and the voice of Moth’s physician, Dr. Sadie Frost, whose observations, which lend the novel a strain of reason and morality, are noted in the margins.
In a world where most adults are painted as predators and most young people seem desperate for a shot at the good life, the consequences for Moth’s peers are largely predictable, as are the outcomes of Moth’s relationships with Dr. Sadie and her patients. Such predictability, however, doesn’t make McKay’s portrait of Moth’s world any less engrossing.