Title: My Notorious Life
Author: Kate Manning
No. of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 10 September 2013
Bottom Line: Informative and inspiring
“Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day.
In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.”
When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear.”
Thoughts: Sinking into My Notorious Life requires some effort. For one, the narrative is told in dialect. Readers must weed through the uneducated speech of a self-made woman and must also decipher the slang of the era. It makes the story more personable, as if Axie is sitting across from the reader telling her story, but it does take some time to adjust to the differences in speech patterns and word usage. Another point to note is that while narrating, Axie assumes that the reader knows and understands the historical contexts of her story. Orphan trains, such as the one that tears her apart from her sister and brother, warrant no explanation. Midwifery efforts are similarly clouded by an assumed familiarity with the topic. The lack of background details is not enough to cause major issues in following the story, but it might make the story initially more difficult.
Once a reader overcomes those initial obstacles, the rest of the story is a highly enjoyable, informative narrative about a charismatic and unstoppable woman. Axie is an absolute riot, with her no-nonsense attitude and fierce independence. Her unwavering loyalty and strong beliefs in women’s reproductive rights make her an excellent role model too. Yet she is not without an element of tragedy. Her longing for her family, her initial ignorance regarding reproduction and women’s health in general, and the knockdowns she keeps experiencing make her a tragic figure worthy of sympathy. Ms. Manning balances the heartbreak with Axie’s strong personality to make a very entertaining figure.
My Notorious Life is a regular rags-to-riches tale albeit one with moral implications. Axie Muldoon’s fortitude allows her to overcome every obstacle put in her path. While the constant battles for survival may wear down one’s moral code, Axie remains firm in her convictions, setting the stage for the battles that plague her professionally in the later years. The timeliness of the novel cannot be ignored either, since 150 years after the setting of the novel, women’s reproductive rights are still up for debate by mostly white older men. My Notorious Life is a fascinating glimpse at how desperate things used to be for women and also inspiring for the fight that continues.