Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: Belle Cora

Belle CoraAuthor: Phillip Margulies
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Publisher: Doubleday

In the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair, this is the story of a good girl who became a bad woman. At the old homestead her name is never spoken and her picture is turned to the wall, but in the vast world beyond everyone remembers her as the celebrated madam of the finest parlor house in San Francisco. Now, at the end of her life, after half a century of successfully hiding the details of her scarlet past, Belle has decided to reveal all her secrets.
In 1838, Arabella Godwin and her beloved younger brother, Lewis, are orphaned and shipped away from their home in New York City to live on their aunt's desolate farm upstate. The comforts she has always known are replaced with grueling work and a pair of cunning enemies in her cousins Agnes and Matthew. Amid this bleak existence, there emerges light in the form of a local boy, Jeptha Talbot.  He is everything good that Arabella craves. His love saves her and becomes an obsession that will last her whole life.
Time and again she will be broken and remade. She will bear a gambler’s child, build a fortune, commit murder, leave a trail of aliases in her wake and sacrifice almost everything—though perhaps not enough--for the man whose love she cannot bear to lose.  At last her destiny will take her to Gold Rush California, to riches and power.
Until the day she mysteriously disappears.
Told with unflagging wit and verve, Belle Cora brings to life a turbulent era and an untamed America on the cusp of greatness. Its heroine is a woman in conflict with her time, who nevertheless epitomizes it with her fighting spirit, her gift for self-invention, and her determination to chart her own fate.

There is a story about a girl who took the wrong path, and rues it all her life. She is too trusting. She is too passionate. The result: an error that can’t be corrected, a stain that can’t be washed out.

In the sky, they were watching us, Mama and Papa, together and glad to see that their children were being kind to each other. I pictured them. They had beautiful white wings. The stars behind their heads seemed larger because they were so near.

My strongest, sweetest memories of the farm are of that first year, when I was in despair. Living without hope from moment to moment, I absorbed new sensations defenselessly, like a much younger child.

This book, at almost 600 pages, looked a bit intimidating. However, it has been awhile since I have read a book of this size, and I decided this would be the perfect title to branch out with. This story is loosely based on real events and a real person by the same name, Belle Cora. Our heroine tells her own story as she finds herself traveling from the east coast all the way to the west. Arabella Goodwin, our heroine, was a privileged girl from New York who shares her story with us as she experiences a list of tragedies that cause her to change her life. She ends up moving out west to the beautiful, airy California where she will become a very successful ‘madam.’ She started as a simple call girl and then found herself quickly rising to the top. Margulies, the author, brought such life to this character and gives readers an inside look at the California Gold Rush.

I can see how some people might be turned off if they believe that this story focuses around a prostitute or a “good girl gone bad.” However, I am here to set the story straight on accounts. The first is that Arabella suffered many hardships, more than the average person, and because of all she endured she had several choices to make and ultimately she had to do what was necessary to survive. Remember that this was different time and age. Secondly, Arabella is not like most call girls who make excuses for their lifestyle. Arabella is bold and courageous and doesn’t feel like she owes anyone an apology. If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved her character!

Not only does Margulies do justice to Arabella’s character, but he also gives me a pretty vivid picture of San Francisco, California and the Gold Rush. His descriptions are so vibrant and colorful. For someone who has never stepped foot in California, I felt like I had vacationed there for a week or so. Margulies did an excellent job building historical context, and even the dialogue used by the characters is specific to the time period he is writing in.

I was extremely pleased with this novel and recommend it to anyone who likes a good protagonist with an awesome backstory!

***A copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers at Doubleday in exchange for my honest review***

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