I like historical fiction so I jumped at the chance to read an upcoming historical novel. “Madam: A Novel of New Orleans” by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin looked to be an interesting novel about New Orleans in the not too distant past so I decided to take a chance on the novel.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New Orleans was a town on the verge of great opportunity. The one big blight on the city, according to the city councilmen, was the vice that they imagined filled their city through its thriving houses of prostitution even in the face of the law. To contain this activity, Alderman Sidney Story was moving to create a section of the town in which prostitution would be legal as long as the prostitutes lived and worked within that district. The idea was that since the city was not able to stop the vice altogether, it could at least contain it within one part of town.
Mary Deubler, an “alley whore,” barely scrapes together enough money to help support her brother and his wife and is worried about their future as her brother’s wife is due to have a baby soon. When her uncle, who is also her pimp, is thrown in jail, Mary takes a chance and takes over the rent on the small room that she and another woman share. This will allow Mary to keep more of her income and she sees this as a step toward a better future. When the law creating a new legal district for prostitution is created, though, Mary knows that she stands to lose everything. New Orleans is a city of opportunity and change and Mary must take charge of her life to ensure that the next generation will be able to rise above the squalor that the family has survived in for generations.
One may think that a book about prostitution would be an explicit read but the book is quite chaste given the subject matter and the characters. This is not an erotic novel even though sexuality takes center stage. The exploration of sexuality in the novel focuses on the way in which it has shaped society rather than on indulging in carnal descriptions. The intertwining of the changing social mores with the emergence of a new, expressive type of music (jazz) is the center theme of the novel and the authors highlight this with brief cameos of famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong. Just as Mary was growing and changing, the world around her was also growing and changing and allowing for greater opportunity and freedom of expression. This change along with the mystique of New Orleans makes for the perfect backdrop for the change that would soon sweep the nation.
“Madam” is a well-written and intriguing novel that has enough of a historical base to make it rise above the level of pure fiction. Lynn and Martin show a deft hand at handling the story while ensuring that it is realistic as well as entertaining. Mary Deubler is a strong woman in a world in which she is expected to be little more than slave to the lust of men and the power of her pimp. Just as the world is preparing to expand its boundaries into new territories of expression through jazz, Mary is ready to rise above the rabble of her life and transcend what she always saw as her lot in life to become something more. She is able to take the step forward to take care of her family. She grows and blossoms just like the music that is spreading its roots around her. While not a perfect novel, “Madam” is sure to appeal to any reader who is looking for some solid historical fiction that enlightens and entertains.
I would like to give a special thank you to NetGalley and Plume for this advanced reading copy. “Madam: A Novel of New Orleans” is scheduled to be released by Plume on February 25, 2014.