"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
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.
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