An Unsexy Novel about Sex

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

By Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

New Orleans certainly boasts a colorful history, what with Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte teaming to defeat the British at the close of the War of 1812 (actually after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, so technically after the war had ended), the city constantly battling the encroachment of Gulf waters, and, the subject of this book, the confinement of prostitution and bordellos to a red-light district. While many cities have had formal red-light districts (and some still do, like Amsterdam and many German cities), New Orleans’ version has always held a sort of romantic appeal, perhaps because of its nickname, “Storyville,” or that it is way back in history.

Lynn and Martin attempt to resurrect the period, really 1898, the time leading up to the inauguration of the district, by novelizing the life of a young prostitute. While interesting and definitely portraying the misery that was (and is) street prostitution, it’s never as compelling as you might expect a novel on this topic to be. Truth be told, it’s kind of flat. Lynn and Martin might have done better by shortening the build-up to the instituting of the district and lengthening the portion devoted to the district.

In fact, there was a real Mary Deubler, the central character. She, however, wasn’t nearly as downtrodden and hapless as her novelized version. She proved a quite shrewd entrepreneurial type who did operate a house called the Arlington, who even in short biographical sketches sounds intriguing. Probably many of the characters who have basis in history, like Tom Anderson and Lulu White, were more interesting than as Lynn and Martin portray them. Which highlights the weakness of their novelized approach, weak characterizations.

In the end, Madam isn’t really the place to seek out information about or titillation from Storyville. Those wishing to pursue these might try a source cited as a favorite by the authors, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District and the extant photographic work of E.J Bellocq, E.J. Bellocq Storyville Portraits, as well as novels using the period and location as a backdrop. w/c

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