"I had crossed all the lines they you say you can never cross without being destroyed, and here I was, alive and strong."
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.
"A rollicking first novel that tracks an American Moll Flanders on her roller-coaster ride from respectability into quite profitable sin and back again…an enjoyable allegory for the settling of the American West, with plenty of sex and violence along the way… With vivid detail, Margulies depicts a society in which a "ruined" girl has few options… Contemporary readers will, of course, applaud Belle's spunk…We're in the hands of a professional, and a good time of a certain sort is guaranteed."
-The San Francisco Chronicle
“Margulies strikes gold in his first novel… [his]writing never falters, and the reader will easily get lost in the world he’s built. Belle’s remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life.”
-Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era."
- Library Journal
"Belle Cora is historical fiction with a nugget of truth at its core; the heroine is based on a real 19th century madam, and the story is sprinkled with bits of genuine primary sources. The writing is clear and precise, the characters enthralling. It has a bit of a good-girl-gone-bad narrative at the center, but it’s always more about the heroine’s determination to survive by any means than a novel that’s looking for an excuse for its characters to misbehave in a titillating fashion. Above all else, it tells a great story."
"Phillip Margulies has taken the scant known facts about Belle and created a magnificent heroine. Although not always a sympathetic figure, her frankness about her failings and her justification for the artful actions she is often forced to take to guarantee self-preservation make her utterly compelling.
But this is far more than just one woman’s story. It is also an epic detailed exploration of the underbelly of 19th-century America, with all its vice, bigotry, political corruption and religious hypocrisy. The descriptions are rich, the characters well-fleshed, and the novel’s crowning achievement is that it doesn’t try to appease modern sensibilities and presents an honest reflection of this era. A memorable and outstanding work on many levels."
“Gripping, sweeping, and tragic, Belle Cora is the story of an extraordinary woman making her way through an extraordinary time. Part love story, part scandal, part historical epic, Philip Margulies masterfully orchestrates a riveting tale, taking us from the hardboiled streets of New York City to the rich promise of California's goldmines. At its center is a complex, daring woman, a character I won't soon forget. “
- Anton DiSclafani, New York Times bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls
“The past is a foreign country. If, like me, you long to visit 19th century New York and San Francisco, I can't imagine a better time-travel substitute than Belle Cora. This is a splendid feast of a novel.”
-Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and New York Times bestselling author of Heyday and Turn of the Century
“Belle Cora is an enthralling historical drama, the story of a 19th-century Moll Flanders, told with sympathy, feeling, humor, and accuracy. Phillip Margulies is a superb writer.”
—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd and Paradise Alley
“Pull away…if you can. Tuck this gorgeous, alive story of America back on your book shelf. No, don't. You would deprive yourself of a stunning historical saga, the kind that doesn’t come along every day. You don’t just read Belle Cora. You live it – and you won’t turn your bedside light out for a very long time.”
-Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell
“Belle Cora is a wonderfully assured novel, a story to lose yourself in, by turns thrilling, witty and poignant. Phillip Margulies has given us a luminous portrayal of an unforgettable woman. You will be utterly seduced by this alluring story.”
- Margaret Leroy, New York Times bestselling author of The Soldier’s Wife
About the Book
1. What role do the forward and the introduction play in Belle Cora?
2. Why do you think the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 prompted Belle to tell her life’s story?
3. Belle mentions that the book’s purpose is not to instruct others on how to live, and insists that her sole purpose is "to tell what happened." Based on the rest of the novel, is she as indifferent to morality as she pretends?
4. In Belle's introduction Belle calls Harriet Atherton, mother of the feeble-minded Jennifer "my old enemy, the good Christian woman." Yet Belle's mother was also a good Christian woman who would never have approved of the way Belle has lived her life. What led Belle away from the faith of her forebears?
5. Why does Lewis become so attached to Horace during the children’s journey from New York to Livy? How does this foreshadow Lewis’s later attachments to Matthew, to Tom Cross/Jack Cutter, and to David Broderick?
6. Lewis and Belle are uprooted from their home and family. How do their different ages and personalities at the time make this trauma unique for each of them? Which is the more severely damaged? Is the criminal path they both take in life the result of this early trauma?
7. Belle loses her mother and father at the age of nine. Later she encounters a series of (mostly unsatisfactory) surrogate parents; beginning with her grandmother and grandfather, then her aunt and uncle. Who are some of the others and how do they succeed or fail in their role?
8. Belle’s aliases are a big part of the book. How does shedding her name help Belle move past disappointments and forge a new identity? What are the limitations to self-reinvention here?
9. Lewis is obviously Belle’s favorite brother. But between the other two, Edward and Robert, who do you think she cares for more, and why?
10. Belle’s love for Jeptha is rooted in her feeling that he understands and approves of her: yet from about the middle of Book Two she begins to lie to him, putting herself beyond the reach of his understanding. Does Belle turn Jeptha into a fool, loving someone whom he doesn’t really know? Or are we allowed to keep a secret or two even from those closest to us?
11. The last chapters of Book Two turn on an historical episode; thousands of people across the United States believed that the world would end by October 1844. How does this event compare with recent end-of-the-world predictions associated with the prophecies of Nostradamus and the Mayan calendar, and the frequent end-time prophecies of evangelists like Billy Graham? Why do people continue to predictions despite their perfect record of 100% inaccuracy?
12. In her discussion of Aunt Agatha's beliefs near the end of Book 2, Belle calls into question the very logic of eternal reward and punishment in the afterlife. She asks how a good person can be happy in heaven knowing that a loved one suffers forever. What do you think of her reasoning?
13. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance really did take over the city in 1851 and 1856, with the excuse that the city was lawless and its government hopelessly corrupt. For over a century, mainstream historians sided with the vigilantes. More recently, revisionist historians agree with Belle that the vigilantes were unjustified Why do you think historians changed their views? What does this say about the role played in American politics by the legend of the taming of the West?
14. In Books Two through Four, Agnes, Belle’s nemesis, outwardly resembles the Victorian ideal of passive femininity though in fact she is a cunning schemer. But when Belle meets her near the end of Book Five, Agnes has turned into a proponent of free love and feminism. Is Agnes’s transformation convincing? Are we meant to believe it?
15. Where does Belle stand with respect to women’s rights? Belle has a great deal of freedom, and she earns her own money. But she gets these things by running a brothel, where wealthy men pay for sex with beautiful women. In the end, which sort of woman did more to advance the cause of women's dignity and freedom? The madams like Belle, or the respectable women who wanted to close the brothels and the gambling halls?
16. As a narrator Belle is at pains to wise us up about the seamy side of life. Yet in the end she has a word to say in favor of self-deception: “They protect us, these vast lies the whole community embraces…. If they believe in an absurdity, it is because they know deep down that it is more useful to them than the truth.” Does she mean it? Is it true?