Woman of Ill Fame Paperback – 1 Feb 2007
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It's been my experience that most who tackle this subject rely on trite stereotypes and sap-saturated gimmicks to warm readers to their not so virtuous heroines - the hooker with a heart of gold, etc. and so on. What I liked about this piece though, was Mailman's refreshingly blunt approach to the world of eighteenth century prostitution. From the provocative tricks of the trade to the more mundane details of daily life in a society that looked down its nose at the ladies of the night, Mailman's realistic portrait of the profession really appealed to me.
Another aspect I appreciated was the range of characters that populate these pages. San Francisco was a hub of activity in 1849 as people from all over the world flooded the port in hopes of finding their fortunes in the hills of California. Mailman not only recognized this fact, but took advantage of it and created a cast with a really diverse set of backgrounds, principles and personalities.
Finally, I have to applaud the mystery at the heart of this story. Crime rates during this period were exceptionally high so a string of murders is not in and of itself particularly interesting or original. It was absolutely imperative that Mailman do something more than recreate a violent crime wave. She needed to make it personal and here again I think she rose to the challenge, offering up a truly chilling series of events that keeps both her cast and her audience on their toes.
A surprisingly engaging and creative fiction, Woman of Ill Fame is a well-balanced and highly enjoyable historic thriller.
Nora's most memorable trait isn't her kindness, however. It's her frank acceptance of her situation, and her desire to make the most of it. She isn't squeamish about sex, takes pride in her physical gifts, works hard, and tells white lies to protect those she cares for. Arriving in San Francisco just after the Gold Rush has turned the city into a boomtown, Simms is shocked to discover a connection between her and a rash of murders. With considerable acuity she manages to protect her fellow prostitutes, duck the moral judgement of her landlord, elevate her status, find a suitor, all while trying to track down the vicious murderer.
Mailman seeds her historical research carefully, letting it bloom in just the right moments and measures. Woman of Ill Fame is a compulsively good portrait of vice, virtue, and early California.
I highly recommend Woman of Ill Fame to book clubs. What's more fun to talk about over drinks with girlfriends than hooker sex and who you thought did it (there are several viable options at one point!)? Nora's expressions are so funny, I wish I'd made a list of them. The sex scenes range from hilarious to cringe worthy to steamy. But they are unexpectedly tasteful and so natural that I never once rolled my eyes.
I think people who loved Jo Jo Moyes' character Lou in Me Before You will love Nora for many of the same reasons. She's a wily, smart, kind young woman getting through something incredibly heavy and difficult with grace and good humour. Yet, like Lu, she is also flawed and so real -- the glimpses into her vulnerability and naiveté will make you care for her all the more. One of the best books I've read all year, and one I'd love to see made into a film.
Having Nora arrive fresh off the ship in the first chapter lets us experience the still primitive boomtown through the eyes of a newcomer. While goldrush era political events are interspersed throughout the story, Mailman's descriptions of San Francisco's physical and social life are better done - the harbor, the periodic fires, the windy ocean dunes, the multi-ethnic mix of people, the rising cost of scarce goods, the liberal use of opium, the accepted acts of violence revealed in vigilantism and cruel bear and bull baiting shows. Dominant, of course, is the problematic life of the endless supply of young women who swell the ranks of a group rarely written about - the women of ill fame. The reader even learns of the methods they used to satisfy their clients. As relevant is the extent to which the possibility of a quick accumulation of wealth (gold! gold! gold!) informs the sensibilities and actions of the city's inhabitants. Perhaps lawlessness was an inevitable result.
A list of sources, or page of background information, would have been welcome.