Belle Cora (Review)

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Belle Cora
Phillip Margulies, 2014
592 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June, 2014
Margulies has given America our own version of Moll Flanders. His heroine, Belle Cora, a prostitute and madame, is as richly drawn as her 17th-century English progenitor. Like Moll, Belle mesmerizes—and shocks—characters and readers alike with her beauty, intelligence, and endless stratagems.

This is no sedate tale of Victorian manners nor a sentimental glance backward to a golden era. Margulies has stripped away the mythology of a young country to reveal its grittiness and corruption. It is the mid-1800's—when America was raw and earthy—and Belle Cora's story reflects those times.

Belle is born into a well-off New York family, and from there her story takes off in a breakneck, downward mobility. It's not necessary to spoil the fun other than to say that she descends to the depths and rises, descends and rises again. And again.

Belle's is the voice we hear throughout, by turns self-congratulatory and self-pitying, yet always tinged with irony. In her telling, a lone woman is prey to errant men, afforded little protection and few prospects. But then, perhaps, Belle is too eager to exculpate herself in our eyes—and even more so in her own.

As if asking for our verdict, Belle address us at the end: "Readers, to some of you I am a monster.... But I am forgiving of human error, and I include myself in the general amnesty." Could she have overcome circumstance? Or was she bound by it? There is ample evidence for either view.

This is an extraordinary book, stunningly written, and as much a character study of young America as it is of Belle herself. Belle engages with it all—the crooked politics of New York's Tammany Hall, the California Gold Rush, and San Francisco's fascist vigilantism. This was the birth of our nation.

Though, admittedly, it's a little "long-in-the-tooth" toward the end, I can't recommend Belle Cora more more strongly—it's an extraordinary read. But be prepared: you will get lost in Belle's world.

See our Reading Guide for Bella Cora.

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