Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

Loosely based on real-life 19th century abortionist and birth control advocate Madam Restell, My Notorious Life tells the story of Axie Muldoon, a orphaned street urchin whose is separated from her siblings. With a little bit of Irish luck and a lot of eagerness to learn, Axie gains an education in the midwifery trade from the woman who tried to save her mother from the cruel fate from child bed fever. Her skills and overwhelming need to save women the way her mother could not be saved would lead her to money, fame and infamy.

I have to admit, when I started reading this, I half expected to not finish it. There are some very annoying writing traits, such as the intentionally poor grammar even in the narration, the censorship of profanity, the lack of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps to emphasize words instead of something like italics. I understand this is supposed to be the diary of the main character and the censored words, for example, were supposed to be crossed out by Axie's husband after her death. But that doesn't mean it's not annoying and I seriously considered abandoning it several times in the beginning.

But given the overwhelmingly good feedback from other readers, I kept on and I'm very glad I did. This is a powerful story about women's position in society, their rights, and their options in life. It is both tragic and inspiring. With compelling characters and rich historical details, it was more than worth the annoyance of a few distracting writing traits which you will soon adapt to.

Axie's life was actually fairly different from her real-life counterpart, Madam Restell, but the foundation is there. They certainly share the same trade and beliefs, they both worked as maids in their youth, they both had one child, and they both were victims of Anthony Comstock. Many of the details of the public scandal, arrest, and trial were taken directly from Restell's experience. While I really wanted Axie's story to be true, I can understand why the author chose the creative freedom of a fictional character because she certainly knows how to weave an amazing yet believable story. You can read more about the real Madam Restell from 'Scandalous Women' blog. There is also a biography of her titled The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell, the Abortionist, but it might be difficult to find. And if you're like me and want to read some of the actual newspaper articles about her, head on over to Chronicling America from the Library of Congress where you'll find free access to historical newspapers.

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