We’re only into the second month of 2014, but BELLE CORA, a first novel by Phillip Margulies, is not only this year’s best read, but last year’s as well. In a can’t-put-it-down historical epic filled with suspense, romance, keen wit, adventure and scandal, Belle Cora comes to life in full HD and 3D, to borrow modern media terms.
Belle is only one of the many names Arabella Moody assumes in her eventful and checkered life as she grows from a well-bred, innocent child, orphaned at age eight, into a beautiful but troubled teen. She and her younger brother, Lewis, are shipped off to an upstate New York farm to be raised by devout Baptist aunts and uncles. Through circumstances out of her control, the rigid morality of the 19th century inexorably thrusts her into a life that will lead her to become an infamous madam by the age of 18.
"We’re only into the second month of 2014, but BELLE CORA...is not only this year’s best read, but last year’s as well. In a can’t-put-it-down historical epic filled with suspense, romance, keen wit, adventure and scandal, Belle Cora comes to life in full HD and 3D..."
As a young woman, she tries to leave her checkered past behind by marrying a Baptist minister and fleeing with her unsuspecting husband to San Francisco. Together, they will minister to the rabble that has washed up on the shores of the fledgling city in the early days of the Gold Rush. But a six-month journey around the horn of South America and a vast untamed continent is not enough to separate her from her reputation, and she once again finds herself on her own. Belle, by now known as Harriet, is a strong, capable and crafty survivor rarely portrayed in recent times.
Margulies has captured the colorful characters and events of the times in a riveting tale that follows Arabella and her rowdy brother --- from the New York parlors of the ladies and their gentlemen callers to the swill and crime of Five Points as they journey through a country on the verge of a civil war. Parts of the story are based on actual events and personalities, particularly in San Francisco. Belle and her lover, Charles Cora, were real people involved in a murder in 1856 when Charles shot a U.S. Marshall who had insulted Belle. The Committee of Vigilance, described in the book, was established in San Francisco in 1851 and again in 1856 in an attempt to stem the lawlessness that had ravaged the city for nearly a decade.
It is as if Fanny Hill, Moll Flanders and Madame Bovary met Scarlett O’Hara. But unlike the books that portrayed these characters, BELLE CORA will face no court battles. Nor will it be banned in Boston, not because Belle’s life is any less sensational than the aforementioned, but because this is the 21st century. Modern readers are less easily offended by people who have strayed from the fold and are portrayed as antiheroes and heroines. The material is not salacious, and the subject matter is treated with great wit and delicacy.
Margulies has penned several nonfiction books on history and science, and admits that he also has written “eight other novels, and they’re all lying around my apartment. Every job in my life has been to not let my family starve while I write this novel.” He has brought Belle to life in a voice so engaging that she will be remembered for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on February 7, 2014