Reviewed by Sophia Chiu

The Virgin Cure offers a poignant look at the underbelly of Victorian New York. Ami McKay, author of the Canadian bestseller The Birth House, turns to her own great-great-grandmother for inspiration in her second novel. As one of the earliest female physicians to graduate from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, she tended to the swelling population of poor women and children eking out a wretched existence in post-Civil War New York and appears as the sympathetic Dr. Sadie in the story of twelve-year-old Moth.

Moth, named by a father who abandoned her, is sold by her fortune-telling mother into service as a lady’s maid. When her wealthy mistress becomes abusive, Moth escapes to find herself in the precarious world of the Bowery. She is eventually taken in by Miss Everett, an upscale madam brokering the sale of the virginity of “near-whores.” Dr. Sadie, who tends to the girls of the house, tries to show Moth that another sort of life is possible.

The world McKay portrays is compelling—it’s a time and place where the necessity of hand-to-mouth survival trumps questions of propriety and morality and a young girl quickly learns that her sexuality is a commodity. However, I found the narrative voice to be disjointed. Styled as Moth’s memoir supplemented by notes from Dr. Sadie, the sidebars which appear during Moth’s first-person accounts were distracting and did not advance the plot as effectively as the occasional journal entry by Dr. Sadie and Evening Star article.

Although Moth is a complex character, by turns both innocent and jaded, it’s a little unclear what made her able to be in a position to write a memoir. Was she exceptionally street-smart, driven, and beautiful or just a young girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time to be rescued? Although it brings up issues of gender equality and social justice, Moth’s journey seems to be buffered from the most devastating blows. For example, the title refers to the dangerous prevailing belief that sex with a virgin can cure a man of syphilis. Girls that became victims of this belief were mentioned and quickly whisked off-screen. (For a novel with such a focus, it was disappointing that McKay got the details of the disease wrong: syphilis causes a painless chancre.) Indeed, some of the earlier elements of the plot seem superfluous and the story seems to wrap itself up too quickly and neatly in the end. Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting this harsh historical underbelly which Ami McKay’s ancestor tried to improve; it is a fitting tribute.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.