There’s much of interest in McKay’s The Virgin Cure. Based on the popular 19th-century myth that intercourse with a virgin can cure men afflicted with “the French pox” and other sexually-transmitted ailments, a small cult grows to promote that cure in Manhattan, providing select virgins to those able to pay the price. It is a specific, lucrative market, the fate of the young women of little consequence once their purpose is served. But far from the perversions of the sex trade and the profits to be made from trafficking in the innocent, Moth is intimately familiar with the daily struggles of a poverty-riddled existence on Chrystie Street. There Moth and her fortuneteller mother barely scrape together enough to live from day to day, destitute since abandoned by Moth’s father.
While her mother imbibes a popular cordial and drifts into oblivion, Moth begins making plans to forge her own way. But before she is quite prepared, Moth’s mother sells her daughter into service with a wealthy woman as a ladies’ maid. Though Mrs. Wentworth is strict and exacting, Moth does her best to acclimate to her new surroundings, eventually unable to please her mistress in even the simplest task. Mrs. Wentworth begins delivering small, vicious punishments that escalate over time to blows, bruises and Moth’s fear for surviving service to this monster. The only way out is to escape. With the assistance of the butler, who exacts a price for his aid, Moth takes to the streets, pawning stolen jewelry until she is once more destitute and alone.
Easy prey for those looking for vulnerable girls, Moth is invited by a friendly young lady to interview for a position in a small, very selective brothel. Miss Everett accepts only certain potential beauties, virgins to be sold to the highest bidder who are in need of “the Virgin’s Cure”. To that end, Moth is fed, clothed, examined by a physician (Dr. Sadie, who takes an interest in her) and given instruction on how to comport oneself in polite society. Moth understands what is expected in return. A life of prostitution is not unexpected to one who grew up on Chrystie Street; at least Miss Everett offers some security and a clean environment.
Visiting attractions around the city to become more comfortable with appropriate behavior in the company of gentlemen, Moth falls in love with Mr. Dink’s Palace of Illusions. She is, befriended by Mr. Dink and the freaks in the show, who share their hard-earned wisdom. Dr. Sadie tries to tempt Moth from service at Miss Everett’s, but the newly-named Ada Fenwick understands her place in society and the steep price of independence.
Moth’s debut approaches, and with it an opportunity for revenge against the wealthy matron who tortured her. But McKay does her novel a disservice by giving Moth an easy way out of her situation at Miss Everett’s—albeit after her deflowering—an almost-happy ending that puts a false face on what really would have been the fate of such as Moth: the true horrors of exploitation and greed in the city. In her notes, McKay mentions a relative not unlike Dr. Sadie, the woman who inspired this novel. Moth’s character becomes nothing but a vehicle for the novel, only a sample of a future—an appetizer, but not a full course meal. I’m not leaving a tip.