reviews & reviewing

The Virgin Cure and Professional Curiosity


On International Women’s Day

I’m reading Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, a novel set in Manhattan in the 1870s.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to read novels set in approximately the same time and place I’m writing about. If the novel is poorly done I can put it aside and forget about it; if it’s well done I’m wracked by curiosity.

The Virgin Cure is extremely well done. The story is about Moth, a little girl raised in the worst slums the city had to offer until her mother sells her to a rich woman to be trained as a lady’s maid. It would be a very short novel if the rich woman treated Moth well and trained her as promised. Or, to quote Jim Thompson: There’s only one plot: things are not what they seem. 

Moth escapes that  bad situation to find a place for herself among the city’s low life, setting out to become a first class thief. This is as far as I have got in the novel, and anything else I could say would be conjecture. The story has definitely kept my interest, but I have to confess that what really makes me eager to read is the historical detail.

It’s professional curiosity that gets in the way of just enjoying the story.  I keep coming across things that take me by surprise, and I have to stop and wonder where McKay found the details. Some of it will be invention, but some of it will be drawn from her research.

So for example, a friend directs Moth to the best fence in the city (the word fence was used then as it is today, someone who will purchase stolen goods from a thief and makes a profit by finding a way to get the stolen item back into circulation).  In this novel the person is Marm Birnbaum, whose Fancy Goods and Haberdashery is located at 79 Clinton Street. 

Because I’m familiar with the period I saw right away that  McKay had based the Birnbaums on Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant who did in fact have a fine dry goods shop at 79 Clinton Street. Marm Mandelbaum and her husband were hugely successful both as shopkeepers and patrons to the criminal element. From a Smithsonian  article very much worth reading: 

Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time. […]  By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

When you’re writing historical fiction you can’t follow every interesting lead, or you’d never finish anything. For McKay this particular minor character was worth pursuing, so I would guess that she sought out every source provided in the Smithsonian article, starting with a thesis:

Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).

At this point I have to talk myself out of getting hold of this unpublished thesis. It is relevant to what I’m writing, but not relevant enough (or at least, that’s my story and I’m trying to stick to it) to interrupt the flow of writing. To which I have to return. Right now.

Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.

Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that. 

100 (more or less) novels

Will Barnet, Woman Reading

Will Barnet, Woman Reading

This is my alternate list to 100 Books you Should Read  (Gina Barreca) in Psychology Today.  I gave myself an hour to do this. 

I started by going through Barreca’s list and asking myself: If this book were assigned to me to teach or to lead a discussion in book group, would I want to do it? If the answer was no, I struck it. A lot of books disappeared.  I then looked at the books I struck, and tried to come up with an alternate by the same author. Example: Barreca had D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which I changed to Lady Chatterley’s Lover because I’ve been a part of really interesting discussions about that novel.  

If I couldn’t come up with a novel by the same author, I just went with my instincts. Sometimes alternates that occurred to me made obvious sense (instead of Gone with the Wind, I chose Sacred Hunger); other times I didn’t see a connection, but went with my first impulse anyway.

What I was going for: well put together novels that I liked,  that would lend themselves to discussion on more than one level. And there are not a hundred here, I don’t think. I haven’t counted.

1984 George Orwell

A Room with a View E.M. Forster

A Soldier of the Great War Mark Helprin

A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith

American Gods Neil Gaiman

Asylum Patrick McGrath

Bastard Out of Carolina Dorothy Allison

Beloved Ton Morrison

Blue Angel Francine Prose

Catch 22 Joseph Heller

City of Shadows Ariana Franklin

Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons

Cold Mountain Charles Frazier

Collected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Dracula Bram Stoker

Dubliners James Joyce

Empire Falls Richard Russo

Ethan Frome Edith Wharton

Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury

Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy

Final Payments Mary Gordon

Go Tell It on the Mountain James Baldwin

Gorilla My Love Tone Cade Bambara

Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Julia Alvarez

Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry

Middlemarch George Eliot

My Year of Meats Ruth Ozeki

Mystic River Dennis Lehane

Niccolo Rising Dorothy Dunnett

No Country For Old Men Cormac McCarthy

Orlando Virginia Woolf

Pagan Babies Elmore Leonard

Paris Trout Pete Dexter

Persuasion Jane Austen

Pet Sematary Stephen King

Possession A.S. Byatt

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier

Sacred Hunger Barry Unsworth

Lady Chatterley’s Lover D.H. Lawrence

Sophie’s Choice William Styron

Straight Man Richard Russo

The Collected Stories of Willa Cather

The Country Girls Trilogy Edna O’Brien

The English Patient Michael Ondaatje

The Fortunate Pilgrim Mario Puzo

The Good Soldier Ford Maddox Ford

The Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

The Hours Michael Cunningham

The House of Mirth Edith Wharton

The House on Mango Street Sandra Cisneros

The Jungle Upton Sinclair

The Princess Bride William Goldman

The Shape of Things to Come H.G. Wells

The Shipping News Annie Proulx

The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien

The Three Sisters May Sinclair

The Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

The Witches of Eastwick John Updike

Underworld Don De Lillo

Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

Waking the Dead Scott Spencer

White Teeth Zadie Smith

Without Fail Lee Child

Wrongful Death Baine Kerr


Margaret Lawrence (Hearts and Bones) 1945-2011

Hearts and Bones

Hearts and Bones, first in the series

I was thinking of sending somebody Margaret Lawrence’s three Hannah Trevor novels (and The Iceweaver, which isn’t technically part of the trilogy but is, kinda), which are out of print but (I hoped) might have been released in ebook format. So I went to see and found instead that the author died four years ago. 

This article about Margaret Lawrence (a pen name)  appeared in her hometown paper at the time of her death.

It makes me melancholy to think of all the interesting women novelists of my generation (so to speak) who are gone, women I would like to have had the chance to talk to. Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman (I actually did have an email correspondence with her, but I would have loved to sit down with her over tea), Jetta Carleton, Margaret Lawrence are just a few of them.

And unfortunately the Hannah Trevor trilogy is not available for Kindle or any other ebook format. Seems like some savvy publisher would jump on that.