Thursday, 18 July 2013

My Notorious Life - Kate Manning

his sweeping, evocative, and absolutely unforgettable novel about the charismatic and passionate Axie Muldoon who changed the lives of countless women was inspired by a real midwife who became one of the most controversial figures in Victorian New York City.Set in gritty New York City in the last half of the nineteenth century, My Notorious Life is a vibrant portrait of Axie Muldoon, a plucky orphan who becomes one of the most successful—and controversial—midwives of her time. Told in a magnetic voice, pulsing and vivid, Axie recounts how she is separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor and midwife, and how she later parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for female complaints” into a thriving midwifery practice with her husband and fellow orphan friend, Charles G. Jones. But Axie is on a collision course with one of the most zealous, censorious characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of Axie’s power to outwit him and save both herself and her family from ruin. 

A love story, a family saga, and a brilliant rendering of a historical time, this is also a moving and nuanced commentary on an important topic: women’s control of their bodies. But ultimately, it is the story of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world; with her fierce and vibrant spirit, Axie Muldoon is an indelible heroine for the ages.


To be honest, I picked up this book on the character's name alone. I'm Molly Muldoon and it's not often I see my last name in print. As I like to say, Muldoon is stereotypical Irish but not common. I was pretty pumped for a heroine with my last name and settled down to read it.

It's a little hard to get into at first as it's written in a vernacular that tries to place you immediately into Axie's head. It's annoying for the first few pages but you slowly grow accustomed to it and over time, as Axie grows and learns more, the grammar and turns of phrases become more regular. After the first twenty or so pages, I was quite keen on it. It creates character through the experience of reading and I liked that.

Axie is a strong lead and you can't help but feel for her. Put in a tough situation pretty much from birth, she picks herself up by her bootstraps and becomes a wealthy woman, mostly on her own with only a bit of help from her husband. She's vivacious and strong and insecure and tough rolled up into one intense package and I loved her from page one.

All of the characters are unique and lively. From Axie's missing little sister Duchess to her friend and future husband Charlie, to the women that nurture her and teach her the medical ways to the German girl next door that becomes a best friend, all the characters are immediate and real, adding to the narrative and pulling Axie one way or another. 

The story deals a lot with the morality of abortion, not so much through arguments but through actions and characters. Comstock, Axie's rival, as she calls him, becomes a symbol of male patriarchy and misunderstanding of woman and it couldn't have felt more timely. A lot of things Axie finds herself up against are the same sort of things male politicians have been saying in the past year on the same debate. Despite the over hundred year difference, the arguments feel just as fresh and frustrating as if they came off the front page.

Oh! Did I mention this is based on a true story? Axie is fictional version of a real woman and Comsock is almost painfully real which just adds to my argument.

I tore through this book and found the twists and turns not always unexpected but definitely full of impact. Axie's struggles to provide for herself, protect her new family, find her old family and make a life for herself ring true to the reader, despite the Victorian setting. I would recommend this book to any woman who loves strong female heroines and is fed up with the current 'war on women.' It's a timely book with a good message and a kickass female lead.

My Notorious Life comes out in September 2013 from Scribner.

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