A debut historical novel that chronicles the struggles, loves, and joys of an exceptional madam in 19th-century America.
Grossenbacher’s book, the first in a planned series, dramatizes the early life and busy career of a woman named Brianna Baird. Raised in Baltimore in the decades before the Civil War, Brianna dreams of one day growing up to own a seamstress shop and marry a sweet man of virtue. But her plans unravel after she meets young Spenser Brown, a sweet-talking violinist who leaves her pregnant and betrays the promises he made. “Get your things and get out,” her father barks at her. “I don’t know you as my daughter.” Alone and knowing little of the world, she travels to New Orleans and finds work at the notorious parlor house of Madam DeSalle. There, she earns her keep first as a seamstress and later as the exclusive courtesan of gambler Edward Spina. Brianna learns of the evils of slavery, the lifesaving magic of voodoo, and the cruelties of even the most genteel of the gentility. Edward’s protection doesn’t save her from being ill-used, and she all too quickly comes to see that “New Orleans is wild and hostile to young girls.” When Edward decides to adventure in California, Brianna takes a great risk and accompanies the fellow she’s grown to depend on as a friend, confidant, "and lover.” Good and bad things await them in the West, where Brianna attains a great fortune as the proprietress of her own parlor house and Edward runs afoul of the law, imperiling their future and jeopardizing his own life. Grossenbacher’s prose is both graceful and inventive. She absorbingly limns the various cities Brianna inhabits, from New Orleans and its “web of Creole cottages, chaotic marketplaces, and secretive balconies, simmering outside her window,” to the rowdy atmosphere of frontier-era San Francisco. The occasional marvelous metaphor will surprise readers, as when “the truth hit Brianna like a badly aimed bowling pin.” This isn’t just a novel for lovers of history’s more prurient corners; it’s for everyone who likes well-deployed language and intense stories.
A seamier side of American history, engagingly told through one woman’s unexpected adventures.