Thursday, January 9, 2014

Julie's Review: Belle Cora

Summary: A sweeping historical novel based on the extraordinary life and times of Belle Cora, the daughter of a New York merchant who went on to become a millworker, a prostitute, a notorious madam, a murderess, and eventually one of San Francisco's richest and most revered dowagers. Some people remember her as Arabella Godwin, others as Harriet Knowles, and still more as Frances Andersen or other names too numerous to list. But let there be no confusion, this is the legendary story of Belle Cora (1828-1919), who survived by her wits and made a fortune off the greed and lust of men. Orphaned at age nine, Belle and her brother, Lewis, are sent to live with their devoutly religious aunt and uncle in rural upstate New York. Nothing can prepare her for the cruelty of her watchful, jealous cousin Agnes, who would become a lifelong rival and enemy. Yet there, Belle also meets the love of her life, Jeptha Talbot. As she blossoms into a true beauty, however, two horrendous events separate her from Jeptha and Lewis. Heartbroken, Belle flees the countryside and finds work in a mill, where she is exposed to the looser morals of hard luck women and begins to harden into the powerful, cunning woman she will become. Soon Belle finds herself in New York, where life takes a dark but alluring turn as she succumbs to the indulgent lifestyle of a highly sought-after prostitute to the city's wealthiest men. But beneath the silk and taffeta layers, she harbors a deep longing to be reunited with Jeptha, now a respected preacher. The road back to him will take her on a treacherous journey from the town houses of Manhattan to the dusty streets of San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush. It's a road of good intentions, but paved with secrets and lies on which the conniving, sometimes ruthless Belle must transform herself again and again to get what she wants. This is the spellbinding story of the devious exploits of a singular woman ahead of her time. Be prepared to be swept away by Belle Cora. 

Review: Belle Cora makes it easy for a reader to fall in love with her. It's her memoir we are reading and she's being honest with us and herself at the end of her life. Plus she's lived an exciting and adventurous life in the 1800s. Life doesn't always deal Belle the life she has to live, but she doesn't feel sorry for herself. She takes the deck she's dealt and makes the best of it. Think about it, back in the 1800s there weren't a lot of opinions for women who weren't married. She did the best she could and she did it well. This book is long but Belle's story completely commands your attention.

You want to know what happens to her during each phase of her life. How does a young, privileged girl from NYC adapt to living & working on a farm in rural NY? What will happen to her as she leaves the farm and goes to work in a mill? How does she become on of the most successful madams in NYC and then San Francisco? Belle isn't always honest in her ways but she's true to herself and does what she thinks is best for those she loves.

Not only is Belle quite the character but so many of the people throughout the story are as well. One of my favorites was Charles, aka Charley, Cora. While Jeptha might have had her soul and her heart; no one understood her like Charley. Charley loved her for who she was, no matter what was her line of employment. Isn't that really all one can truly want? Charley was his own man and Belle was her own woman; they didn't need each other to be complete but they made each other whole.

I won't say that I would ever give the green light to prostitution but I will say that it seemed to be a bit safer for the girls when women were running the show instead of men. I'm not saying this is every case but the girls had a roof over their head, food in their bellies, beautiful clothes, they were looked after and they had friendships. Some who lasted a lifetime. It isn't to say that Belle didn't have her share of problems, but it seemed like she knew who to turn to when things got rough. Belle was definitely political. If there had been more options for women back then, Belle would have made one hell of a CEO. There is so much to say about this book, but really you should just read it. Mr. Margulies is a gifted story-teller.

He writes Belle Cora as a memoir within a novel. It felt like I was sitting down to tea, or maybe some whiskey with Belle and she was divulging her life story to me. I couldn't get enough of her. I kind of know how all the men around her felt. ;) It is obvious that a ton of time and research went into this novel, since Mr. Margulies uses historical figures throughout the book and the roles they played in shaping our history and the time period in which Belle lived.

I have so much love for this book, that it is hard for me to put into words. I just found Belle and her world so fascinating. There were times when the book languished in certain periods and then times when I felt that I didn't get enough about another period in her life but overall it didn't affect my feelings.

As a side note: Doubleday some pretty cool things going on to promote this book, make your way to Pinterest for a contest and/or GoogleMap to see what they've done.

Final Take: 5/5

 Thanks to Lauren Hesse at Doubleday for my ARC of the novel.



Beth Hoffman January 10, 2014 at 1:29 PM  

Until I read your review, I would never in a million years have considered this book. But wow ... you've sold me!

Julie January 10, 2014 at 2:20 PM  

My job is done then, Beth! You will love it. It's a sweeping saga. :)

Alice January 13, 2014 at 6:10 PM  

Adding to my reading list!

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