Fans of McKay’s bestselling novel The Birth House are going to love The Virgin Cure, her second story about an unusual girl living in a precise time and place. This time it’s 12-year-old Moth, the daughter of a heartless gypsy fortune teller, navigating the mean streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the Bowery in 1871—that’s before galleries, boutique hotels and a Daniel Boulud restaurant moved in.
Moth is introduced to readers by Dr. Sadie, a female physician who tends to prostitutes and the poor (and is based on the author’s great-great-grandmother); she explains in a letter that the proceeding story is Moth’s own and in her words. And that world is seething with evil women: the unlucky child is sold by her “slum house mystic” mother to wealthy Mrs. Wentworth, who’s so wicked she makes Mommy Dearest look like a fairy godmother. Moth escapes from her, only to end up in Miss Everett’s “Infant School,” a chilling brothel that certifies its girls as virgo intacto to gentlemen with the deepest pockets and highest bids.
McKay inserts curious sidebars and illustrations, like pages from Dr. Sadie’s journal, old apothecary ads and excerpts from newspapers that foreshadow and elucidate the narrative. For example, the book’s title is explained via an interview with Miss Everett in the Evening Standard: “None of my girls has ever been hurt, or stolen away, or used as a virgin cure. [That’s] the notion that a man can be cured of French pox or any other disease by laying with a virgin.”
Despite the fact that McKay’s vivid prose can trigger in readers the taste of a hot bowl of oyster stew, the reek of Chrystie Street tenement houses and the sound of a taffeta skirt’s hem brushing the floor of a concert saloon, the author falls short with her heroine’s voice: Moth lacks depth, and besides her turbulent existence, there’s nothing particularly profound about her. Still, it’s difficult not to swiftly turn the pages of The Virgin Cure, if only to discover how Moth realizes her ultimate revenge fantasy.