Book Review: The Madam by Julianna Baggott

West Virginia, 1924: Alma works in a hosiery mill where the percussive roar of machinery has far too long muffled the engine that is her heart. When Alma’s husband decides that they should set out to find their fortune in Florida, Alma has little choice but to leave her three children and ailing mother behind. But when Alma is then abandoned at a Miami dock, she is suddenly forced to make her own way in the world. With the help of a gentle giantess and an opium-addicted prostitute, Alma reclaims her children from the orphanage and forges ahead with an altogether new sort of family. As an act of survival, she chooses to run a house of prostitution, a harvest that relies on lust and weakness in men, of which “the world has a generous, unending supply.”The Madam is the story of a house of sin. It is here where Alma’s children will learn everything there is to know about “love and loss, sex and betrayal.” Based on the real life of the author’s grandmother, The Madam is a tale of epic proportions, one that will haunt readers long after its stunning conclusion.

Alma is married and has three children. She is suffocating from her daily life, from her children’s needs, from her work in a loud and dusty hosiery factory in a loud and dusty mining town, and from poverty. When her husband Henry learns that there are abandoned trunks full of valuables for sale at a reasonable price in Florida, they decide to take a trip. That trip is the catalyst for change in almost all aspects of Alma’s life.

I liked this book. Well, more specifically, I liked the writing. It’s just so evocative of time and weather and place and change. Here’s a sample from the beginning of the book:

But Alma can feel things shifting. She knows nothing of atoms. She can’t. She’s a woman in a hosiery factor in Marrowtown, West Virgina. It’s 1924, nearly summer. Atoms are still the matter of physicist’s dreams, dim stars with the skies just beginning to ink. But if she did know of atoms, she would say she could feel the restlessness of them, like schoolchildren at the end of a long spring day. She’s aware of the vibration of everything – not just the factory’s thrumming hive, but in some minute invisibility all around her, inside of herself, a small electric charge.

In addition to excellent writing, the story was interesting. However, about halfway through, it kind of lost me. It took some unexpected turns, and left me a little unsatisfied. The characters are so good. At least, their potential is good. There’s Delphine, the opium-addicted whore. There’s Roxy, the homeless lesbian. There’s Sister Margaret, the good-hearted and practical nun. And there’s Alma herself. But each of these characters, for me, failed to live up to her potential. In fact, I felt like this whole book failed to live up to its potential.

While I can’t wholeheartedly love this book, I am curious as to Baggott’s other, more critically acclaimed works. Perhaps I’ll read one of those someday.


My Gemstone Rating:


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