Synopses & Reviews
In writing The Madam
, award-winning storyteller and bestselling author Julianna Baggott turns her eye to her own family history, creating a masterful novel based on the lives of her grandmother, who was raised in a house of prostitution, and her great-grandmother, who was the madam. The result is a passionate, richly detailed account of the business of lust and the human soul gracious, corrosive, resilient.
It's 1924 in an industrial town in West Virginia. Alma works in a hosiery mill where the percussive roar of machinery has far too long muffled the engine that is her heart. When her husband decides that they should set out to find their fortune in Florida, Alma is torn. Ultimately she agrees and they leave behind their three children, a boarding house of show people, a dead vaudeville bear, and Alma's ailing mother. But their fragile marriage soon collapses. Abandoned by her husband on a Miami dock, Alma is suddenly forced to make her own way in the world. With the help of a gentle giantess and an opium-addicted prostitute, Alma reclaims her children, forging a new family, and commits herself to a life set apart from the world she knows. She chooses to run a whore house, a harvest that relies on lust and weakness of which "the world has a generous, unending supply."
As her children grow older, however, Alma's love for them becomes desperate especially for her daughter Lettie, who, at fifteen, disappears. Alma draws on the fierce strength of the unlikely cast of women around her, and the novel careens to its shocking, redemptive, unforgettable ending.
Written in stunning, incandescent prose, The Madam is a literary page-turner that takes on brutal realities. It is a story of the unbreakable bonds between women who triumph and, more heroically, endure.
"Baggott's clear prose gives one the distinct feel of someone exorcising solemn, bitter ghosts....The result is a grimly effective work about people who live and dream at the end of a very short rope." Rodney Welch, The Washington Post Book World
"[A] tale as awesome and menacing as a hurricane....Baggott's insights...are galvanizing in their intensity and drama, and her cathartic and commanding novel is a provocative paean to unconventionality, unexpected alliances, courage, and autonomy." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"Despite its titillating theme and quirky supporting characters, this is a rather standard kitchen-sink drama....Fans of [Baggott's] readable, charming earlier novels may be mystified." Publishers Weekly
"Beautifully rendered, this story is as brave and unique and full of surprises as the madam portrayed within it." Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle
"Julianna Baggott not only has a wonderful story to tell but she also has the voice by turns poetic and bawdy, sober and mischievous with which to tell it. The world of The Madam is at once sensuous and sad, hardscrabble and full of unexpected tenderness." Elizabeth Graver, author of Unravelling
"In writing a detailed and astonishing portrait of the making of a madam, Julianna Baggott has created a story about the strength of women, the way women love, the power of friendship, and how women survive the often brutal circumstances of their lives. Her prose is lit with the fire of passion; it is haunting, luminescent, and irresistible. The Madam is a tour de force of a novel, a compelling crescendo all the way to a tense and surprising end that you'll never forget." Christine Wiltz, author of The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
"A poet has transformed a piece of history into a luminous and epic piece of literature, bringing to the page the dark and lyrical and bizarre and sexual and comical and violent and mysterious and supremely heart-breaking spectacle of wide, wild lives rendered vividly before our eyes." Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble
Critics' favorite Julianna Baggott, national bestselling author of The Miss America Family
, draws on the real life of her grandmother in this exquisitely written, sweeping epic of lust commodified and love unyielding. With her first two novels, Julianna Baggott has proven to be a stunning, lyrical new voice in American fiction, willing to startle and unnerve readers with her boldly incisive, witty, and often subversive visions of suburban dissolution. Now, in The Madam
, the award-winning storyteller turns her eye toward her own family history, writing a beautiful, aching novel based on her grandmother, who was raised in a house of prostitution, and her great-grandmother who was a madam. Baggott weaves her most ambitious and emotionally bracing narrative yet, about an unforgettable woman named Alma.
It is 1924. Alma and her husband are off to find fortune in Florida, leaving behind their children at Sister Margaret's orphanage and abandoning their life in West Virginia, where the percussive roar of the mill has for too long muffled the engine that is Alma's heart. When their treasure hunt comes to naught and their fragile marriage fractures, Alma is forced to make her own way. With the aid of a gentle giantess and an opium-addled prostitute, Alma starts a whorehouse, a harvest that thrives on lust. But the Madam's heart continues to beat for her children especially her daughter Lettie. When Lettie ensnares herself in an abusive marriage with a cop, Alma finds herself prepared to go to any length to free her. Beneath a steady mist of coal ash, five extraordinary women unite in a redemptive act of violence in hope of serving one of their own.
About the Author
Julianna Baggott has published dozens of short stories and poems in such publications as Poetry, TriQuarterly, Ms. Magazine, and Best American Poetry 2000, and has read on NPR's Talk of the Nation. She is the author of two novels, Girl Talk and The Miss America Family, and a collection of poems, This Country of Mothers. She lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband, writer David G. W. Scott, and their three children. Visit her website at www.juliannabaggott.com.
The Madam is partially based your own family history. How much of this is your story?
My grandmother grew up in a whorehouse. Her mother was The Madam. My grandmother had two brothers, one who was retarded and was taught to read and write and swim by the nuns in the convent where he and my grandmother were left. The novel is made up of true family stories. I took liberties. I created interior lives. This is in many ways a brutal novel, and the reality of the lives of these women was, I'm sure, more brutal yet. However if you ask my grandmother about her childhood, she'll say it was happy, that she was loved, and it is this conviction that has saved her.
What does your family think of you sharing their secrets? Are any secrets left untold?
My grandmother is still afraid of our past, in some ways. She once asked my mother, after I sold the book, if they would hold it against me. My mother didn't know what she was talking about. "Hold what against her?" "Our past," my grandmother said. And so it still haunts. My mother and my grandmother haven't held back, haven't protected me. Their honesty, in part, made me a writer. Yes, there are many secrets left untold.
The descriptions of the visiting carnival and the day-to-day of a 1920s brothel are vividly detailed. What kind of research went into The Madam?
My grandmother is a wonderful resource on the details from how much for certain sex acts to how to fake charred liquor, but the novel required intensive research outside of her expertise how to smoke opium, how to latch train cars, how to resuscitate someone in a coal mine. My father helped me with much of the research. The novel is set in fictionalized version of his hometown Morgantown, West Virginia. I relied on old photographs and books, some with wonderful oral histories. I read two Appalachian dictionaries and interviewed coal miners who'd worked in the thirties. I fell in love with research, the way it makes every sentence more textured and soiled and undeniable.
Motherhood and womanhood are large parts of this story. How did being a mother yourself influence your portrayal of Alma?
I have three children. My great grandmother had three children. At first, I was judging her. How could she have made the decisions that she did? This kind of judgement was poisonous to the novel. I knew that. And so, ultimately, I had to become her. I had to figure out the similar inner workings of our hearts. Once that transformation occurred, I could really begin to write.
The story is dominated by strong women and female places (the convent, the brothel). Alma seems to grow up when Henry leaves and the first man to stick around in Lettie's life turn out to be abusive. Where do men belong in the story and in the family?
There is abandonment and abuse, but then there are these other beautiful struggling men Reverend Line who suffers the loss of his daughter and innocent Willard and Irving, most of all, who is trying to teach himself what it is to be good. The novel ends in Irving's point of view. He is redemptive. As for my family, I would say that the same is true. There is a history of villains and saints, and more realistically human weakness. This novel was most painful to write because of the legacy of abuse in my family's past. I was forced to make the most difficult and personal choices.
In Smitty you created a character who is simultaneously vile and, in some moments, sympathetic. Do you think he got what he deserved? Would the same reasons hold true today?
There are seemingly more options for abused women today. Seemingly. But, honestly, I'm not hugely impressed with our progress on this issue. Did Smitty get what he deserved? No. The ending of this novel isn't about revenge. It's about survival.
What's next for Julianna Baggott?
I'm very involved in working alongside the charming and elusive new author NE Bode whose first young adult novel The Anybodies debuts this spring. I'm also at work on a collection of poems in the voices of historic women, including Gala Dali, Camille Claudel, Helen Keller, and Lizzie Borden. And there's a new novel in the works, I promise.