All alone on the grim streets of New York, plucky Moth tries to protect herself, but dangers lurk around every corner. So when a pretty young girl she meets offers her safety and shelter, Moth jumps at the offer — but at what price? Stacy, Alex and I find out as we read and discuss pages 117 to 230 of The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay.
Laurie: So Moth and the Bowery to start: It’s a terrible world.
Alex: I love Moth and fear for her more with the turn of each page.
Stacy: This New York City is waaaaaay scarier than I could ever imagine.
Laurie: Living on a roof, in a barrel, with a 2 x 4 studded with nails to protect yourself…
Stacy: But how awesome was it that she called that plank Pride?
Laurie: Loooooved that!
Alex: I LOVE her. She is such a feisty little thing, and it’s so interesting reading Dr. Sadie’s notes to see that she feels the same way.
Laurie: That’s it exactly: feisty. Nobody’s gonna take her down.
Alex: I loved seeing the different perspectives brought into this section — it felt like there were more of them — newspaper clippings, the doctor’s reports, etc.
Stacy: Me too — really enjoyed the addition of Dr. Sadie’s voice, and that Sadie noticed that feistiness about Moth without having to learn as much about her as we did.
Alex: Slowly we are figuring out that the path she is actively treading is one her mum ended up on, too, but with less of the perks. And it was great peeking behind Sadie’s curtain.
Laurie: McKay originally thought of the book from Sadie’s, or her great-great-grandmother’s perspective, but then realized that the right voice was Moth’s…
Stacy: I think that was the right call… I mean, it’s more gut-wrenching, visceral and real hearing about Moth’s life from Moth’s mouth, y’know?
Alex: That’s so fascinating — she stumbled upon this perfect narrator and had to use her.
Stacy: Getting it through the lens of Sadie’s journal entries or whatever wouldn’t work as well. And besides, the world has more stories from the upper classes than lower classes throughout history. It’s nice to get an alternate voice in the huge pantheon of historical fiction.
Alex: I love that idea that the character of Moth helped the book evolve.
Laurie: But still interesting to get Sadie’s take on things; she’s sort of the devil’s advocate, the grown-up perspective, the person who knows things Moth can’t possibly know.
Alex: Exactly. She’s so much more inclusive because even Sadie’s life was only available to the elite.
Stacy: Laurie, you’re totally right. You have to have them both. And Sadie is also a good reminder that we shouldn’t be too fooled by Moth — she’s not as grown up as she thinks she is/wants to be.
Alex: Yes! Just what I was thinking.
Laurie: She’s such an innocent still.
Alex: Between them they expose the reader perfectly to both sides of the argument and both sides of life. It’s so good Sadie is there to remind us of that, otherwise you find yourself thinking, Well, what choice does she have? I would probably do the same as her. But the problem is, they basically don’t have any freedom and their future is bought. And that’s the part Moth is not considering.
Laurie: And it’s not surprising Moth is so seduced by material things — who wouldn’t be? She just doesn’t know the price she’ll pay.
Stacy: She’s a kid. They’re all kids. Even if they were really as old as 16, and keeping in mind that 16 was a lot older then than it is now, they still haven’t quite mastered the concept of thinking ahead or being cognizant of consequences.
Alex: And can you believe the age of consent back then?!?! That was a shocker.
Laurie: UNBELIEVABLE!!!! 7 in one state…!!! What?
Stacy: I was just gonna say: 7?! THAT IS A BABY.
Laurie: There was this idea that childhood as a concept didn’t exist until a certain point in time. I just wish Sadie would keep her.
Alex: I know! I want Sadie to be her Daddy Warbucks — Mummy Warbucks.
Stacy: That’s true… post-industrial revolution, right? They were just considered smaller adults. On another note, what did you both think of Miss Everett? I had one idea of her from that newspaper clipping about “Miss E.” “Meeting” her was a bit shocking.
Alex: She is just out for herself, isn’t she? Such a horrible person. We are just beginning to see her true colours — in terms of stealing the tear jar and forcing Moth out of her grief to strip.
Laurie: Almost every single person in the book is just out for themselves. Survival of the fittest — it’s like Lord of the Flies on Manhattan island.
Stacy: But under the guise of doing good, which makes it ickier. How unfortunate that survival of the fittest means taking advantage of others, too. And those creepy men chatting her up while she’s on stage.
Alex: That was horrible. The leching and leering were written about so concisely, those images were really etched into my mind — them putting their fingers through the holes, coaxing her.
Laurie: That was it: the disgusting comments and poor Moth standing there and being told she couldn’t leave until she’d stripped. And Alice being so matter-of-fact about picking a short song so she wouldn’t have to stand there so long — all those details make it so rich and visual and real.
Alex: Alice is soooo much sweeter than Mae, who’s a little madam in the making. And how about that kiss with Cadet — awwwww.
Stacy: Actually, Alice is perhaps a little more innocent than Moth, even; after all, she thinks she’s going to find someone to fall in love with her.
Alex: She’s a sweetheart. I want her to get out.
Stacy: I’m pretty ambivalent about that kiss, actually. I just want people to stop wanting things from Moth. Does that make sense?
Alex: I know, but I liked the moment because she seemed to take pleasure in it. How shocking was it that the girl Moth and Sadie visited is dying from syphilis?
Laurie: The girl Sadie almost saved, the one Miss Everett holds over her — damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in other words.
Alex: Sadie seems so tormented by whether or not she should get involved in helping them.
Stacy: Because even one with a certain amount of agency (like Sadie) is trapped by what’s expected of her, and just how much she can do.
Laurie: Life isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries in the school they’d go to. And the families Sadie says would be good ones make me suspicious, too.
Alex: I know. It feels so crushing: There are no good options.
Stacy: But somehow, despite knowing there aren’t options and that the situation is basically hopeless, the entire book doesn’t feel hopeless. I think that’s another by-product of Moth as narrator.
Laurie: Moth keeps on hoping, and so does Sadie, which is wonderful, given the situation. That’s the wonder of this book, I think: that even in the grimness, McKay still conveys hope for a better future through Moth and secondarily through Sadie.
Alex: And that’s such an inspiration — makes me feel like I need to suck it the hell up.
Stacy: Ha! OMG, me, too! Were you in danger of being sold into servitude as a tween, Stacy? No, you were not.
Laurie: All of us! Lol! Like the fish swimming in the wee bowl in the apothecary shop….
Alex: Another fantastic symbol.
Laurie: It is, isn’t it? And I love how Sadie, despite everything, is somewhat vain — peeking at herself in mirrors. Makes her human.
Stacy: Me too! The pretty little buttons and neatly done hair — she’s not some flawless cipher.
Laurie: It just goes to show how much she cares about what she’s doing: to have sacrificed what she did to have that career: her social standing, her entrée into society, etc.
Alex: I think it’s also related to the way people looked at a woman with a career at that time; it’s indicative of the fact that she feels people are always looking at her.
Laurie: And yet she still does it. Feisty, like Moth. Kindred spirits, what she recognizes in Moth the first time she sees her perhaps.
Alex: True. She’s rebelling against society and beating the odds.
Stacy: I think both of you are spot on in terms of characterization. But also, on the writing side, I think it’s important to have those little asides because otherwise Sadie’s a featureless “good guy” whose purpose is being the hero, not a fully formed character. I love that McKay included those bits.
Laurie: Like Norton, too. Not wholly good.
Alex: Everyone has his or her flaw. It’s so much more realistic.
Stacy: Exactly. Because it seems that, especially then, no one was wholly good. It wouldn’t ring true.
Alex: But some have more good than others…. Grrr Miss Everett. I want to see what happens with Cadet.
Laurie: And some seem to have no good at all: Mrs. Wentworth!
Stacy: Me, too, about Cadet.
Laurie: I can’t imagine what will happen if Moth stays, but how will she escape? Can Sadie save her?
Alex: I want Cadet to rescue her and for them to run away together.
Laurie: “Son of a bloodsucker”: talk about evocative!!
Stacy: I kind of want her to rescue herself. But that’s really not realistic at all, is it? I mean, she’s 12! Who even knew that bloodsucker was a job?!
Alex: EWWW. It shocked me even the second time McKay brought it up!!!
Stacy: I’m kind of cringing as we talk about it right now!!
Laurie: And what did you think of Mae and the comment she made about the snakes? That girl is no good… Too wild. With a mean streak.
Alex: I don’t trust her.
Stacy: Me either. Interesting that Mae has brought more than one girl into the fold — she’s ambitious.
Alex: They’re only out for themselves, that’s how they’re “raised.”
Stacy: Yes, definitely. And also SMART. She knows how to manipulate men into giving her money, how to sneak in and out of the house, how to hook a guy (that run-in on the streetcar).
Laurie: She is soooo taking chances! She’s gonna get her butt kicked out on the street!
Alex: And did you get the impression she was trying to pickpocket on the bus? I just read the sign and thought, she’s up to something…
Laurie: Hmm. Never thought about that. I thought she was just trying to pick the guy up.
Stacy: I thought it was more describing the moment in the reprint of that missed connection.
But I wouldn’t be surprised, she’s tried just about everything else — like Alice’s comment that Mae says she’s an “Everything But girl.”
Alex: I just feel like McKay is leading me to question everything Mae does.
Laurie: I think she’s making you feel, quite rightly, that to trust anyone in this society is a dangerous thing. Ulterior motives are everywhere.
Stacy: True. Because there’s not been a single character who has done something for Moth with no strings.
Alex: Exactly. So smartly constructed.
Stacy: Well, maybe Mrs. Riordan.
Alex: She’s so lovely but just too poor.
Laurie: Except her and Sadie, wouldn’t you say? Mrs. Riordan even reconciles herself to the rats! Poor, poor lady! Makes me cry.
Alex: I know. So sad.
Stacy: Oh yeah. And Sadie.
Alex: Well, I have hope things improve for Moth in the next section.
Stacy: Cross fingers!! Until next week, ladies!
Laurie: We’ll see next week! Till then!