Belle Cora: A Novel

Belle Cora: A Novel

4.4 11
by Phillip Margulies

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      "I had crossed all the lines they you say you can never cross without being destroyed, and here I was, alive and strong."

   In the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair, this is the story of a good girl who became a bad woman. At the old


      "I had crossed all the lines they you say you can never cross without being destroyed, and here I was, alive and strong."

   In the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair, this is the story of a good girl who became a bad woman. At the old homestead her name is never spoken and her picture is turned to the wall, but in the vast world beyond everyone remembers her as the celebrated madam of the finest parlor house in San Francisco. Now, at the end of her life, after half a century of successfully hiding the details of her scarlet past, Belle has decided to reveal all her secrets.
  In 1838, Arabella Godwin and her beloved younger brother, Lewis, are orphaned and shipped away from their home in New York City to live on their aunt's desolate farm upstate. The comforts she has always known are replaced with grueling work and a pair of cunning enemies in her cousins Agnes and Matthew. Amid this bleak existence, there emerges light in the form of a local boy, Jeptha Talbot.  He is everything good that Arabella craves. His love saves her and becomes an obsession that will last her whole life.   
Time and again she will be broken and remade. She will bear a gambler’s child, build a fortune, commit murder, leave a trail of aliases in her wake and sacrifice almost everything—though perhaps not enough--for the man whose love she cannot bear to lose.  At last her destiny will take her to Gold Rush California, to riches and power.
 Until the day she mysteriously disappears.
 Told with unflagging wit and verve, Belle Cora brings to life a turbulent era and an untamed America on the cusp of greatness. Its heroine is a woman in conflict with her time, who nevertheless epitomizes it with her fighting spirit, her gift for self-invention, and her determination to chart her own fate.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The legendary Belle Cora (1828–1919), one of San Francisco's wealthiest women, begins her memoir after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, revealing secrets and deception in her own life and broader society. After her mother's death from tuberculosis and her father's scandalous suicide, Arabella Godwin and her younger brother, Lewis, are sent by their wealthy grandfather to their aunt's family in upstate New York. Strict rules and grinding poverty are relieved only by Arabella's friendship with Jeptha Talbot, fueling jealousy in her cousin Agnes. Their rivalry for Jeptha's love plus Lewis's penchant for violence dictate many of Arabella's actions. After being raped by her cousin Matthew, Arabella reinvents herself to survive. Whether as high-class prostitute Harriet Knowles in New York City or notorious madam Belle Cora in San Francisco, she profits from associations with wealthy businessmen and prominent politicians. Belle's experiences in places from high society to seamy street life include information on textile mills, gold rush fever, religious revivals, and vigilantism. She finds support from Charles Cora, a charming gambler who fathers her son. VERDICT Making his adult fiction debut, Margulies, an author of YA nonfiction, infuses his novel with historical detail without slowing the pace and makes the reappearances and interactions of characters plausible. The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era. [See Prepub Alert, 7/29/13.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/30/2013
Margulies, the author of numerous science and history books for young adults, strikes gold in his first novel. Depicted as the deathbed autobiography of Arabella Godwin, aka Belle Cora, the story begins with Arabella’s childhood in 1830s Manhattan. When her parents die, her grandparents send her and her younger brother, Lewis, to an aunt’s farm in New York, where she meets her cousin Agnes, who becomes her lifelong enemy. As they grow up, they vie for the attention of Jeptha Talbot, and Arabella succeeds in securing an engagement to him, but Agnes’s lies force the two apart before they are married. Heartbroken, Belle braves one terrible hardship after another, finally ending up in New York, where, in despair, she becomes a high-level prostitute. When she takes up with Charles Cora, a gambler with the heart of gold, he bankrolls her own establishment. She enjoys being a madam and even bears Cora a son, whom she sends to live with her one kind relative. But then she discovers that Jeptha and Agnes are engaged and planning to go to San Francisco on a trip. Margulies’s writing never falters, and the reader will easily get lost in the world he’s built. Belle’s remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"A rollicking first novel that tracks an American Moll Flanders on her roller-coaster ride from respectability into quite profitable sin and back again…an enjoyable allegory for the settling of the American West, with plenty of sex and violence along the way… With vivid detail, Margulies depicts a society in which a "ruined" girl has few options… Contemporary readers will, of course, applaud Belle's spunk…We're in the hands of a professional, and a good time of a certain sort is guaranteed."

-The San Francisco Chronicle 

“Margulies strikes gold in his first novel… [his]writing never falters, and the reader will easily get lost in the world he’s built. Belle’s remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life.”
-Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era."

- Library Journal

"Belle Cora is historical fiction with a nugget of truth at its core; the heroine is based on a real 19th century madam, and the story is sprinkled with bits of genuine primary sources. The writing is clear and precise, the characters enthralling. It has a bit of a good-girl-gone-bad narrative at the center, but it’s always more about the heroine’s determination to survive by any means than a novel that’s looking for an excuse for its characters to misbehave in a titillating fashion. Above all else, it tells a great story."

"Phillip Margulies has taken the scant known facts about Belle and created a magnificent heroine. Although not always a sympathetic figure, her frankness about her failings and her justification for the artful actions she is often forced to take to guarantee self-preservation make her utterly compelling.
But this is far more than just one woman’s story. It is also an epic detailed exploration of the underbelly of 19th-century America, with all its vice, bigotry, political corruption and religious hypocrisy. The descriptions are rich, the characters well-fleshed, and the novel’s crowning achievement is that it doesn’t try to appease modern sensibilities and presents an honest reflection of this era. A memorable and outstanding work on many levels."

Gripping, sweeping, and tragic, Belle Cora is the story of an extraordinary woman making her way through an extraordinary time.  Part love story, part scandal, part historical epic, Philip Margulies masterfully orchestrates a riveting tale, taking us from the hardboiled streets of New York City to the rich promise of California's goldmines.  At its center is a complex, daring woman, a character I won't soon forget. “
  Anton DiSclafani, New York Times bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls

“The past is a foreign country. If, like me, you long to visit 19th  century New York and San Francisco, I can't imagine a better time-travel substitute than Belle Cora. This is a splendid feast of a novel.

-Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and New York Times bestselling author of Heyday  and Turn of the Century

Belle Cora is an enthralling historical drama, the story of a 19th-century Moll Flanders, told with sympathy, feeling, humor, and accuracy.  Phillip Margulies is a superb writer.”

—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd  and Paradise Alley

“Pull away…if you can. Tuck this gorgeous, alive story of America back on your book shelf.  No, don't.  You would deprive yourself of a stunning historical saga, the kind that doesn’t come along every day. You don’t just read Belle Cora. You live it – and you won’t turn your bedside light out for a very long time.”
-Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker  and The Daring Ladies of Lowell

“Belle Cora is a wonderfully assured novel, a story to lose yourself in, by turns thrilling, witty and poignant. Phillip Margulies has given us a luminous portrayal of an unforgettable woman. You will be utterly seduced by this alluring story.”
Margaret Leroy, New York Times bestselling author of The Soldier’s Wife

Kirkus Reviews
The fictional memoir of an actual madam who ruled Gold Rush–era San Francisco. Except for her extraordinary beauty, Arabella Godwin is no different from any well–brought-up young lady in New York City circa 1837. Then misfortune intervenes: Her mother dies of consumption, her father kills himself, and instead of taking in the new orphans, her wealthy grandfather sends her two older siblings to boarding school and Arabella and youngest brother Lewis to the chilly confines of a hardscrabble farm in the Finger Lakes town of Livy. There, Arabella's Aunt Agatha and Uncle Elihu force the orphans to endure a new life of endless chores and frequent corporal punishment. Gradually, Arabella adjusts with the help of a teenage romance with Jeptha, an angelic looking drunkard's son--whom her scheming cousin Agnes also loves. However, when Jeptha gets religion and Arabella is raped by her brutish cousin Matthew, the resulting pregnancy and induced miscarriage will propel her out of Livy. After a brief stint as a millworker, Arabella returns to New York City to rescue Lewis, who's been stabbed. Eventually, supporting ne'er-do-well Lewis forces Arabella into prostitution--it's the only way to secure large amounts of money quickly. Aided by a newspaperman client, Arabella exposes the corrupt policeman and the ward boss who had persecuted Lewis and cheated her. When she learns that her grandfather and older brothers are searching for her, she avails herself of this last chance to leave "the life" behind, but freeing herself completely will involve murder. Now married to preacher Jeptha, with whom she has been reunited after managing to wrest him away from her rival, Agnes, Arabella heads for California. The couple's mission is to convert San Francisco miners, and since Arabella has been intercepting Agnes' letters, Jeptha remains, so far, ignorant of her fall from grace. Margulies' recreation of Arabella's milieu and astute observations of the hypocritical sexual mores of a bygone time lend resonance to this episodic epic. A convincing melodrama in which the victim takes charge.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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3 MB

Meet the Author

PHILLIP MARGULIES is the author and editor of many books on science, politics and history for young adults. He has won two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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Belle Cora: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
[ I received this book free from the publisher through GoodReads/ First Reads . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] This is one of my Top Ten books of 2014. And, as much as I was sure it is fiction, it is actually based on a true "Madame" in San Francisco, although Margulies is quick to amend he made up her backstory. "I have treated a historical figure as if she were a product of my imagination, providing her with a childhood, youth, family, husbands, lovers and death that are in conflict with the handful of kniwn facts about Belle Cora. On the other hand, the major public events of the novel...are all true..." ( p.591). Arabella Godwin, born in NYC of a well-to-do family, is shuttled with her youngest brother Lewis to Western NY when her parents die. She never forgives her grandparents for this. Going from riches to rags, she grows up on a hardscrabble farm until she's grown, when she returns to the City to help her brother. Circumstances pile one on another and she becomes the owner of a high class brothel where she rubs elbows with the movers and shakers. After a while she has a child who she chooses to give up to her aunt for the child's sake. Marrying her childhood sweetheart, they travel to San Francisco City during the Gold Rush days where Jeptha is to be a missionary to the locals. With the loss of a young boy while on the boat, his faith is shattered. Their marriage is tested time and time again and Jeptha ends the marriage. Belle restablishes herself as a courtisan soon running one of the best houses in San Fransisco. The story starts early on the day of the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake, and mostly told as reflections of Arabella's life. It takes the reader through early expansion, through beyond the Civil War; through her marriages and her reinventions as a single respected Madame, an entrepanuer, a murderess, a philanthropist and a protector. This book is highly readable and highly recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BoundtoRead More than 1 year ago
This engrossing historical fiction pulled me in from the first page. On turning that last page, I immediately found myself looking back on the book as a whole - reminiscing, so to speak, on Bell Cora's whole life. Could not put this book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At 700 pages, I thought this would last awhile......wrong! I could not put down this page turner! Starting with Belle's childhood and continuing through the many decades of her life, the story is beautifully written and all the loose ends tied up. Belle's life is fascinating, tragic, and mesmerizng. No sequels to wait for (yay) this womans story stands alone. Not your run of the mill formula novel. A must read to enjoy, remember, and read again when the details in your memory dull a bit. Belle is the Scarlett O'Hara of her profession.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CAJ45 More than 1 year ago
I'm amazed how well this story was woven that I couldn't not become a part of as I read. Belle came alive. I truly felt that her life could have happened. It's always amazes me when I come a crossed a book that makes me wonder if a book has based its main character on someone in real life. This book did that I actually looked up all of Belle's names to see if she was person outside of the book. Her life and trails and all that she overcame just pulled me into her story. I became the bystander in the book able to see and feel everything. I know I wouldn't have survived as well as Belle did nor do I think I would have had the outcome that she did. She was a strong individual and did what she had to do to survive the hand she was dealt. She's an amazing woman in a wonderful book. I'm so glad that I got to read this! ARC courtesy of Doubleday Books via Netgalley
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MaureenST More than 1 year ago
Talk about living history, as soon as you pick up this book you are walking in Arabella's shoes. There were many times when I was wanting to help this girl/woman. Such tragedy she suffered as a young girl, born with the preverbal silver spoon, and then having it all gone. Rejection by Grandparents, broke my heart. This book has it all, lots of historical times...walking San Francisco, and living in the moments. We even experience of the Civil War, and losses. Travel around 1800's New York City. Can't say I agree with her profession, and her recruiting, but the story of what made her who she was is excellent. If you are looking for a story of the raw life in California...Gold Rush time, this is for you. It is a rather long book, but very rich. Enjoy! I received this book through the publisher Doubleday, and Edleweiss, and was not required to give a positive review.