Thursday, November 6, 2014

My Notorious Life


A brilliant rendering of a scandalous historical figure, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is an ambitious, thrilling novel introducing Axie Muldoon, a fiery heroine for the ages. 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.

Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” My Notorious Life is a mystery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present
(From Goodreads)


     I would like to preface this review with this brief description of this piece . . . What a wild ride! From start to finish, Kate Manning takes the readers from the impoverished Irish immigrant neighborhoods of New York City to the Midwest via the infamous orphan trains, then right back to NYC, but this time with an upscale flair.  Needless to say, while reading “My Notorious Life”, I was thoroughly captivated by not only the geographical adventure, but the ever-evolving characters presented in the book.

     The story begins on the dirty and dangerous street of New York circa 1860. Anne “Axie” Muldoon and her two siblings, Dutch and Joe, are the children of poor Irish immigrants. Left to essentially fend for themselves after the death of their father and the debilitating injury sustained by their mother, the siblings are taken in by the Children’s Aid Society and shipped by orphan train to Illinois with the promise of “a place of hot cider and oxtail stew, new boots and green grass all around.”  Quickly, Dutch and Joe are adopted out, but strong-willed, opinionated   Axie has a harder time finding a home and eventually is sent back to New York. Upon her arrival, she finds that her mother has remarried and is pregnant again. Shortly thereafter, her world is bludgeoned by heartbreak after the sudden death of her mother during the birth of the new sibling.

     Alone again, and even more destitute than before, Axie is determined to change her fate, and accepts a job working for a doctor and his wife who specialize in “female maladies”, which included lunar pills and at times, abortions.  As the doctor begins to trust Axie, she is taught the secret and illegal skills of his profession and finds that she is a natural. This chance opportunity springboards her into a career path that will bring her wealth, riches, notoriety both good and bad, heartbreak, jail time, and ultimately closure to her miserable and wretched past.  

     This story is based loosely on the life of Ann Trow -Lohman, who was dubbed the Wickedest Woman in New York by Mr. Comstock, the leader of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the media who documented her trials and tribulations. I found this fast paced, exciting story was given much authenticity by the use of Irish lingo and jargon, and the depiction of immigrant street life is as close to accurate as can be. I found in Axie an unlikely heroine. Regardless of your feelings about her profession, it is hard not to find her triumph over tragedy endearing. The way with which Axie holds her head high through even the roughest waters is admirable and commendable, and left me with a real veneration for her strength and determination. The twist at the end will  truly catch you off guard, as well as make you appreciate the writing prowess and creativity of the author. With My Notorious Life, Kate Manning has found a niche that has been missing in the fiction world. Most of the stories told from this time period are typically male dominated, but in this piece the female voice is strong and true, and brings a fresh, new perspective to 1860’s New York City.  I give this book 4 stars and hope that she writes a follow up in the very near future.


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