The much-anticipated follow-up to The Birth House,
The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay''s place as one of our
most powerful storytellers.
"I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to
a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart."
The Virgin Cure begins in the tenements of lower Manhattan
in the year 1871. A series of betrayals lead Moth, at only twelve
years old, to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, where eventually
she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as "The
Infant School." Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for
companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of
them all are young virgins like Moth.
While Moth''s housemates risk falling prey to the myth of the
"virgin cure"--the belief that deflowering a girl can heal the
incurable and tainted--her new friend Dr. Sadie warns Moth to
question and observe the world around her so she won''t share the
same fate. Still, Moth dreams of answering to no one but herself.
There''s a high price for such independence, though, and no one
knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
1. Miss Everett could be seen as doing work that "saves" girls,
whether from poverty or from working the streets, and she is an
established member of New York society. What do you think of this
argument, considering the few options for young girls like
2. What makes Moth such a survivor? Is she better or worse off
without her mother?
3. The young Moth spends a lot of time fantasizing about the
lives of the wealthy and how her life could have been different. Do
Moth's early experiences with the Wentworths dispel some of those
fantasies, or shore them up?
4. Moth's mother tells Mrs. Wentworth that Moth's name is "Miss
Fenwick." Later, Moth chooses to use the name "Ada" while she's in
the brothel. How do these and other names change the way Moth sees
herself? How does calling herself "Ada" help her to cope?
5. How does Ami McKay use mystery and hidden secrets in
The Virgin Cure? For instance, consider the
various characters who live secret lives, or the importance of
fortune-telling, or the role of the old Stuyvesant pear tree in the
lives of early immigrants.
6. Most of the girls in Miss Everett's house believe their lives
can only improve if they win the continued affection of one of her
rich clients. Dr. Sadie ensures that this doesn't happen for Moth
by taking her to visit Katherine Tully. Why do you think Miss
Everett lets Moth go along with the doctor for the day?
7. What sorts of sacrifices does Dr. Sadie have to make in her
work and her life?
8. Discuss the title of this novel and the different ways it
relates to the story within its pages. Discuss the devastating myth
of the "virgin cure" - not only how it took hold in the New York of
this novel, but how it continues today in parts of our world.
9. What character in this novel intrigues you the most, and
10. Throughout the novel, McKay uses elements like Dr. Sadie's
diary, margin notes and newspaper ads to convey information,
whether about her characters or more generally about the New York
of the day. Talk about the effect these parts of the narrative had
on your reading, and your experience of Moth's world.
11. Reread the Evening Star article that appears just
before the novel's epilogue - a report on the debut of the
Circassian Beauty at Dink's Museum. Compare the exotic story about
her past with what really happened to Moth.
12. At the end of the novel Moth lives in a home on Gramercy
Park and seems to have reached her life-long goal - yet she's only
nineteen. What do you think the future holds for Moth?