“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.”
Thoughts: If anything, Belle Cora questions what it means to be bad or good. Through Arabella’s journey from New York City to San Francisco, Mr. Margulies casts doubt on the true meaning of these arbitrary adjectives. At the same time, he raises questions about the oldest profession in the world as he forces readers to see that life from Belle’s up-close perspective. Her initial abhorrence of such a life, followed swiftly by acceptance of its perks, her reluctance to leave that life with its perks, and her eventual flaunting of her position support Belle’s opinion that such a life is not as horrible as her experiences in more pious societies. The fact that she accepts even the worst behaviors among her clientele but refuses to forgive those from her childhood who caused her the most heartbreak is telling. Indeed, it is a scathing commentary on the hypocrisy of religion, politics, the law, and everything else that most people consider to be good in society both then and today.
Belle Cora is like Scarlett O’Hara had Scarlett grown up without money and connections. She is ruthless, fiercely independent, intelligent, devoted, and fearless. The tough lessons taught to her by her aunt and her cousins serve her in good stead as she learns how to not only survive but to thrive in corrupt and remorseless New York City. One may not support her methods but will still admire her resolute determination to succeed.
The love story within Belle Cora is a poignant surprise. One never expects her childhood crush on Jeptha to last as long, to become as complicated and adult, and to be quite as endearingly sweet as it does. More importantly, just as Belle’s chosen profession examines society’s opinion of right and wrong, Jeptha and Belle’s relationship further probes the issue. Both make unique and costly decisions to be with one another, sometimes to the detriment to their individual benefit as well as that of their relationship.
Belle Cora is ambitious in scope and excellent in execution. The topics addressed and the questions poised create a story that refuses to let go of a reader, burrowing under a reader’s skin and forcing one to consistently evaluate previous assumptions, values, belief systems, and the like. Its vibrant and thorough descriptions of a bygone era create a full-fledged image replete with aromas. Along with its unforgettable characters, Belle Cora is a book for the ages.