abortion, Anthony Comstock, book review, contraception, feminism, historical fiction, Ireland, Kate Manning, literary fiction, midwifery, misogyny, New York City, nineteenth century, pointless prologue, voice, women's rights
Review: My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning
Scribner, 2013. 435 pp. $27
Early on in this superb, unflinching novel, its protagonist, Ann “Axie” Muldoon, learns never to trust a man who says, “Trust me.” It’s a lesson she has cause to remember many times, not least because she sees what happens to other women who fall for it.
Axie grows up in 1860s New York, in the most squalid tenement imaginable:
. . . the cabbage cooking and the piss in the vestibule, the sloppers emptied right off the stair. Mackerel heads and pigeon bones was all around rotting, and McGloon’s pig rootled below amongst the peels and oyster shells. The fumes mingled with the odors of us hundredsome souls cramped in there like matches in a box, on four floors, six rooms a floor. Do the arithmetic and you will see we didn’t have no space to cross ourselves.
But the one thing she has is her family, which consists of her mother, younger sister, and toddler brother. They’re devoted to one another, proud of their Irish origins, ready to laugh when they may, and careful not to provoke evil sprites through a misstep. But when trouble brings about the family’s dispersal, Axie discovers what real suffering is, and you just know there’ll be no magical ending.
However, Axie’s not the type to give up, and she finds her feet with a married couple named Evans, both doctors, and their kind-hearted housekeeper, Mrs. Browder. At first, Axie has no idea what kind of medicine her benefactors practice and is content to learn the domestic skills that Mrs. Browder is all too happy to teach her. Gradually, however, her curiosity leads her to the Evans’s library, and to understand the medical texts she finds there, she learns to read better. I like how Manning handles Axie’s discoveries, evident to the reader long before the girl herself figures out that Mrs. Evans is a midwife and sometime abortionist. You sense right away that Axie will learn and practice these skills and that she’ll never turn away an unfortunate woman who seeks her help.
Meanwhile, though, a boy she once knew has crossed her path again–Charlie, an orphan like herself. Daring, charming, born with the gift of gab, Charlie sweet-talks her, urging Axie to trust him. That in itself is a red flag, of course, but Axie can’t always help herself. Their scenes together provide ample evidence of how even women who know better can betray their common sense. Something tells Axie that Charlie may not be a scoundrel after all, but, without giving anything away, let’s just say that he tests that hope.
If you read My Notorious Life, and I heartily recommend that you do, skip the jacket flap until you’ve finished the book. I’ve made that a habit these days, sampling just enough to get the premise, and then only if I haven’t learned it from another source. And in this case especially, I’m glad I skipped it. Scribner’s publicist did Manning a tremendous disservice, telling far too much, and, if you ask me, not always accurately.
For similar reasons, I once again have to ask why an author as talented as she, in such command of voice, character, wit, language, and sheer storytelling, should settle for a prologue and chapters that jump ahead when she could have narrated My Notorious Life in sequential order and done just fine. Most men Axie meets are ignorant hypocrites when it comes to female sexuality, and most women accept their judgments as truth, even if they should know better. So it’s no secret that if Axie persists in her newfound calling, she’ll run into trouble. I see no reason to foreshadow that.
That said, however, I can’t praise My Notorious Life enough.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.