From the gritty, hardscrabble streets of early 19th-century Manhattan, to the brazen brothels and barrooms of Gold Rush-era San Francisco, readers will find author Phillip Margulies’ rollicking debut novel Belle Cora as exquisitely seductive as its enigmatic heroine.

Disguised as a memoir, Belle Cora is actually an ornately constructed family saga tucked within a framework of well-researched 19th-century historical anecdotes. In a clever twist on the rags-to-riches formula, Margulies’ novel is a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale that opens with the upper-middle-class, 12-year-old Arabella Godwin enjoying a privileged life that is marred only by her tubercular mother’s lingering illness. But while her mother’s passing is grievous, her beloved father’s sudden and mysterious death is what proves devastating, as Arabella and her youngest brother, the rapscallion Lewis, are soon exiled by their maternal grandparents to a farm owned by relatives in upstate New York.

This rollicking historical novel is as exquisitely seductive as its courtesan heroine.

Readers who cherished every gentle word of their Laura Ingalls Wilder collections might recognize the daily rhythm of American agrarian life here—the cramped farmhouse, the communal pig slaughter, the one-room schoolhouse—but be forewarned: Margulies’ dark depiction has none of the pastoral wholesomeness of Little House on the Prairie. When Arabella finally frees herself from these physically and mentally abusive relatives to follow Lewis to the city, her escape does not, alas, end happily. Once in New York, Arabella discovers that her brother’s violent temper has landed him in jail.

Desperate, destitute and determined to raise the money needed to free Lewis, Arabella throws off her Puritanical upbringing to become a high-class prostitute. Neither sexy nor sentimental, Margulies’ depiction of the madams and girls immersed in the world’s oldest profession is grim and hopeless, despite the promise of wealth, glittering gowns and attention from legions of rich, famous and, above all, hypocritical men.

Weaving an evocative tale in a nonlinear, flashback-style narrative, Belle Cora will captivate readers from start to finish, evoking a bittersweet blend of compassion and contempt for a heroine who defies tradition, and often pays a heavy price.

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