This novel is a follow-up to The Virgin Cure, though it can certainly be read as a standalone.
In 1880 in New York, Adelaide Thom (Moth of The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair open a teashop. Together, they provide services to their female clients: tarot readings, potions, herbal remedies for contraception and abortion. They are joined by Beatrice Dunn who comes looking for a job but soon becomes an apprentice when she demonstrates an ability to see ghosts and talk to spirits. Of course, danger lurks in a male-dominated society that views unconventional women with suspicion. The Salem Witch Trials are history, but there are people who are still obsessed with discovering the witches among them.
Adelaide and Eleanor are witches, but they are not servants of the devil. They are women empowered by magic; they possess special skills and wisdom which has been passed down to them. “Witches see to things best sorted by magic – sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh.” Several times Beatrice is identified as the “first witch not born but made.” I had difficulty with this description because it is obvious that Beatrice has magic within her; Eleanor even tells her, “’The magic working within you is more powerful than most.’”
The evil that exists is found not in the witches but in other people. There’s a scorned husband who uses his wealth and power to exact revenge on the woman whom he believes led his wife astray. And there’s the religious zealot, Francis Townsend, a puritanical and sadistic preacher who has made it his life’s mission to find witches and either reform or destroy them. Unfortunately, these villains, including Sister Piddock, are more caricatures than convincing characters.
What the three women are is intelligent and independent in a time when those characteristics in women were viewed by many as threatening. People were told to beware of women “touting intelligence over righteousness” especially if they were “the healer, the fortune teller, the academic, the suffragist.” This is the aspect of the book I found most interesting – its portrayal of how 19th-century society reacted to strong, confident women.
At the end of the novel, there are some unanswered questions. What exactly happens to Lucy Newland? What about Bart Andersen and Sophie Miles? What is the fate of Adelaide’s mother? These characters play significant roles, but then they are just dropped.
The novel is rather slow-paced. Gradually suspense is introduced, but the outcome in cases of real danger is predictable. What stands out is the portrayal of life in the time period of the novel, especially the curtailed life of women. Incorporating the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle into the story conveys the period’s interest in Egyptology.
In the Author’s Note at the end, McKay refers to a book published in 1893 which she identifies as a “call to action, a rallying cry to women to reclaim the word ‘witch.’” McKay’s book can be seen in the same way, especially because she even states, “Get ready world, something witchy this way comes.” McKay suggests that “there’s still plenty of work to be done” so women can take their true place in society; she wants women to speak out, to assert themselves so they cannot be dismissed. I could not help but be reminded of Donald Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman.” May all women be witchy, nasty women!
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.