Very loosely based on a 19th century prostitute, Belle Cora is the remarkable story of one woman’s fight to live her own life on her own terms no matter what tragedies God or man throws at her. A woman of many names and many lives, Belle recounts her story to the reader as a memoir in order to give a clear and truthful account of her life and actions. She gives the many reasons she became the woman the world would come to see as a dangerous and powerful madam and whore. Pointing out the various occurrences that led her down her rather twisted, treacherous, and hard won path – from her parents’ deaths that forced her out of her sheltered life in New York City into an unloving, harsh, and religious farm life, to the vicious loss of her innocence, to a drive to live so strong she begins selling her body – Belle leaves nothing hidden for the first time in her life. And what a life! Rape, degradation, murder, losing the love of her life then finding him again just to lose him again…each new challenge and hurt adds on to the hard shell she builds around herself until she learns to hide her true self and to use her intelligence, cunning, courage, and natural beauty to become a very rich, very powerful, and independent woman.
The memoir style of the novel is absolutely perfect for the story, with Belle laying her life bare and even interrupting her own narrative to interact with the reader and explain that she understands what the reader might be thinking of her actions. Agreeing that she made mistakes and showing herself to be anything but perfect, the reader cannot help but feel for Belle and understand her choices even if they don’t agree with them. At times she is her own worst enemy, doing things that make you want to scream at her; this makes Belle wholly relatable. She is selfish, greedy, prideful, vengeful, and cruel at times but she can also be loving, giving, and remarkably understanding of the bad choices of others. By the end of this very long story (just over six hundred pages!), I had forgotten that this wasn’t a real memoir… it just felt so authentic!
On the downside, Belle Cora felt like a book that is six hundred pages. It wasn’t a fast read and at times felt like it was giving too much time to particular points in her very long life. I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted to rush through the heavy details to get to the next part. I should point out, however, that I am not typically a fan of memoirs for this exact reason, so it could just be me. There were aspects of the novel that pulled me out of Belle’s story as well, dealing with the politics, scandals, and real life historical figures of the time that sometimes felt like they were added as reference points and wouldn’t necessarily be items that a person would spend so much time when recounting their own life story. In the grand scheme of the novel, these are minor problems but are still things to note.
Bell Cora – both the fictionalized woman and the novel – is fascinating, and anyone interested in a no-holds-barred account of what it was to be an independent and intelligent yet flawed woman of this time will find much to enjoy. I was astounded at how genuine the whole story felt and at how much I was able to feel for a woman making so many bad choices. I have no doubt other readers will feel the same. If you enjoy historical fiction it is definitely worth the read!
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.